The Nov. 2 election set new spending records again in California, with the state’s two political watchdog agencies scrambling to keep track of hundreds of candidates and committees — and levying fines on them when they don’t comply.
Both the secretary of state’s office and the Fair Political Practices Commission have been trying to collect outstanding fines in recent months. But filers still owe $2.3 million, and it appears likely that much of that money will never be collected.
The bulk of these fines — $1.8 million of total — were issued by the FPPC. That agency aggressively pursues the fines it issues for violations such as failing to file campaign statements and statements of economic interest. When fines aren’t paid, the agency will take steps such as filing tax liens, garnishing wages, placing liens on property, and filing civil lawsuits.
“We keep after these people,” said FPPC chairman Dan Schnur. “If they don’t pay, we use every means possible to get them to honor their debt.”
The secretary of state also issues fines, usually for $10 a day for each day late a candidate or committee is with campaign or lobbying disclosure forms. The agency does not pursue debtors with the same fury as the FPCC, which by law is the top enforcer of California’s campaign finance laws. Instead, the secretary of state relies mainly on a series of letters and uses a public database to track who owes what.
Secretary of state spokeswoman Shannan Velayas said they have steadily brought down the total amount owed.
Last October, the secretary of state had 1,662 individual fines owed for a total of $1,071,619. By January this had dropped to 981 fines for a total of $888,120, and by March it was down to 795 fines for a total of $711,700. As Velayas noted, the list is “dynamic,” with new fines appearing on an ongoing basis.
The current total: 510 fines worth $513,108, averaging a mere $1,006.
But the number of entities with outstanding fines is less than half of that, 238. All told, the top 10 scofflaws on the list owe $340,000, two-thirds of the total. Some of this money may be hard to collect. The list includes penalties dating back to 1999.
About a quarter of this total is owed by a single group, the Sacramento County Democratic Central Committee, who are on the hook for $128,342, with unpaid fines dating back to 2006. But the group’s chair woman, Anna Molate, said they had reached a settlement and the fine should be cleared soon.
The next two groups combined owe nearly as much. The Non-Partisan Candidate Evaluation Council, Inc., a group which sends out political mailers, owes $84,450, with fines dating all the way back to 2000. The California Tow Truck Association PAC racked up 14 fines between 2003 and 2007, totaling $29,498.
There are a few fines that may be more valuable as comedy than as budget balancing solutions. The Cannabis Pharmaceutical Association has owed $100 since 2002. The Group Roach Reform for Responsible Government owes $130. Save Our State is on the hook for $3,910. Citizens for Government Accountability are on the hook for $380, with fines dating back to 2007.
Then there are those who may not be able to afford to pay – the Green Party of California owes $100, dating back to last year – as well as those who won’t pay as a matter of principal. The Ray Haynes for Assembly 2004 campaign has owed $2,820 since, yes, 2004. Haynes, a conservative Republican who preached fiscal prudence, termed out in 2006.
But even with their aggressive enforcement strategy, the FPPC will likely not collect on many of the debts it is owed. In fact, nearly half of their total, $808,000, will likely never be collected.
The debt is owed, ironically, by a group called Californians Against Corruption.
Founded in 1989, it is best known for the 1994 recall attempt against Sen. David Roberti. The recall failed, but Roberti was politically damaged and later lost a race for state treasurer. The committee was hit with a huge fine for failing to file disclosures.
That committee no longer exists, but there is still a web page for a “CAC Legal Defense Fund.” Their page reads, in part, “The CAC Defense Fund was founded to defend persecuted corruption fighters, starting with CAC officers who were hit after the recall with what is still the largest campaign-finance disclosure fine ever issued by any state.”
“The draconian fine was issued illegally, in absentia, in a Kangaroo Court Hearing of California’s ‘Fair’ Political Practices Commission, without jurisdiction under the state’s Political Reform Act … the fine contradicts Supreme Court decisions on the relationship between forced disclosure and the 1st Amendment right to anonymous political expression under conditions of harassment,” the website noted.
Gary Winuk, the head of the FPPC’s 27-employee enforcement division, called the outstanding fine one of their “classics.” It’s also a good example of how difficult it can be to collect a fine against a committee, rather than an individual candidate. Often they try to pursue the treasurer of the committee, who is officially responsible for its finances. But he’s also learned that time is of the essence when it comes to committees.
“The problem with some of the committees is after the election is over, they scatter to the wind,” Winuk said. “There is no money left in the account, there is no one to collect against. We’re moving as swiftly as possible to try to avoid that problem.”
Ed’s Note: CORRECTS spelling of Winuk in final two paragraphs