Com­plaints about sus­pected cam­paign law vi­o­la­tions jump

‘Po­lit­i­cal ac­ri­mony of the last two years’ to blame, non­par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst says.

Los Angeles Times - - ESSENTIAL POLITICS - By Patrick McGreevy patrick.mcgreevy @la­

SACRA­MENTO — Cal­i­for­nia’s po­lit­i­cal watch­dog agency is see­ing a spike in al­le­ga­tions of cam­paign ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in what has been an espe­cially con­tentious elec­tion year.

The state Fair Po­lit­i­cal Prac­tices Com­mis­sion re­ported 2,252 cases of al­leged cam­paign law and ethics vi­o­la­tions in 2018, in­clud­ing com­plaints from the pub­lic, re­fer­rals from other agen­cies and in­ves­ti­ga­tions by its staff.

It’s a 69% in­crease over the 1,331 FPPC cases dur­ing the same pe­riod in 2016, and also higher than the 1,646 al­le­ga­tions re­ceived in 2014, the most re­cent midterm elec­tion year.

“I think it’s part and par­cel of the height­ened po­lit­i­cal ac­ri­mony of the last two years,” said Gary Di­et­rich, a non­par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst. “Cam­paigns have got­ten more ag­gres­sive. There is more scru­ti­niz­ing of each other. I have never seen the kind of in­ten­sity for a midterm elec­tion like we are see­ing this year.”

FPPC Chair­woman Alice Ger­mond agreed that the flood of com­plaints about Cal­i­for­nia con­tests — in­clud­ing cam­paigns for statewide bal­lot mea­sures — stems in part from the lively po­lit­i­cal de­bate this year, as Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can can­di­dates bat­tle over con­tests that in­clude who will con­trol Congress.

“In this very dy­namic elec­tion year, our en­force­ment divi­sion is more ac­tive than ever, both en­cour­ag­ing Cal­i­for­ni­ans to re­port is­sues and tak­ing quick ac­tion,” Ger­mond said.

A new web­site by the agency AdWATCH al­lows vis­i­tors to up­load and re­port mail­ers, signs, door-hang­ers, tele­vi­sion ads and dig­i­tal spots that they be­lieve aren’t in com­pli­ance with state law, which re­quires dis­clo­sure of who is pay­ing for the po­lit­i­cal pitches.

The agency has re­ceived more than 100 com­plaints to the site in the month since it was launched. In the month be­fore that, the agency re­ceived 98 com­plaints through its reg­u­lar web­site, opened eight for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tions and re­jected 48 oth­ers as un­founded or lack­ing ev­i­dence or ju­ris­dic­tion.

Com­plaints re­ceived by the FPPC ahead of Tues­day’s elec­tion that are still be­ing in­ves­ti­gated in­clude:

The Propo­si­tion 6 cam­paign to re­peal an in­crease in the gas tax al­leged that Cal­trans vi­o­lated the law by al­low­ing con­trac­tors to dis­trib­ute fliers op­pos­ing the mea­sure on a state road con­struc­tion project.

Op­po­nents of Propo­si­tion 10, which would ex­pand the power of cities to adopt rent con­trol, filed a com­plaint al­leg­ing that the com­mit­tee Make Hous­ing Af­ford­able – Yes on Prop 10 did not prop­erly dis­close its cam­paign ac­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing top donors.

The Cal­i­for­nia Tax­pay­ers Assn. al­leged Los An­ge­les County vi­o­lated the law by spend­ing pub­lic dol­lars to pro­mote Mea­sure W, which would raise taxes on prop­erty own­ers to fund stormwa­ter sys­tem im­prove­ments.

A cit­i­zen filed a com­plaint ahead of a lo­cal elec­tion in Corona rais­ing ques­tions about how a city coun­cil­man paid for a trip to Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

The Propo­si­tion 6 cam­paign filed its com­plaint with the FPPC on Aug. 29 to ad­dress what it be­lieved was an un­even play­ing field caused by a mis­use of tax­payer re­sources. Cal­trans of­fi­cials said they are com­ply­ing with cam­paign rules.

Re­peal ac­tivists voiced frus­tra­tion that the FPPC hasn’t con­cluded the in­ves­ti­ga­tion it launched on the com­plaint be­fore the elec­tion.

“It’s dis­ap­point­ing — but not sur­pris­ing — that a so­called ethics agency con­trolled by state politi­cians re­fuses to en­force rules to pre­vent those same politi­cians from break­ing rules and mis­lead­ing vot­ers on the Yes on 6 Gas Tax Re­peal ini­tia­tive,” said Dave McCul­loch, a spokesman for the Propo­si­tion 6 cam­paign.

The FPPC, whose mem­bers are ap­pointed by Gov. Jerry Brown and other statewide elected of­fi­cials, tries to ex­pe­dite in­ves­ti­ga­tions of com­plaints, but some cases can take months to review.

Cam­paigns that vi­o­late state laws can face steep fines.

For­mer state Sen. Tony Men­doza (D-Arte­sia) was fined $63,000 in 2016 for cam­paign fi­nance vi­o­la­tions that in­cluded ex­ceed­ing con­tri­bu­tion lim­its and fail­ing to dis­close the source of po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions.

But of­ten the FPPC seeks cor­rec­tive ac­tion to re­solve com­plaints with­out fines. So far this year, the agency has is­sued 409 warn­ing let­ters to cam­paigns and gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees no­ti­fy­ing them that they have vi­o­lated rules of con­duct, but stop­ping short of seek­ing fines.

The com­mis­sion has ap­proved penal­ties in 192 other cases this year, with fines to­tal­ing $397,250.

Other times, of­fend­ers are given ver­bal warn­ings and a chance to cor­rect the prob­lems.

When agency of­fi­cials saw that there wasn’t the re­quired dis­clo­sure of who was be­hind an on­line video op­pos­ing Propo­si­tion 12, which would re­quire more space for egg-lay­ing hens, the FPPC con­tacted the group be­hind the video and it took it down be­fore a com­plaint could be filed by the pub­lic, agency spokesman Jay Wierenga said.

Com­plaints filed on the new AdWatch web­site in­cluded an al­le­ga­tion that there wasn’t proper dis­clo­sure of the fun­der of an ad played on the Spo­tify mu­sic stream­ing ser­vice op­pos­ing Propo­si­tion 8, which would im­pose a limit on prof­its earned by large kid­ney-dial­y­sis cor­po­ra­tions. The com­mit­tee later changed the ad to com­ply with the law, Wierenga said.

An­other com­plaint to AdWatch said a can­di­date for a lo­cal of­fice failed to put a “paid for by” no­tice and com­mit­tee name on a mass mailer, ac­cord­ing to Wierenga, who added that the can­di­date added the proper dis­clo­sure to sub­se­quent ads af­ter con­tacted by the FPPC.

The goal is to make sure the pub­lic knows who is fund­ing cam­paigns, of­fi­cials say.

“Gain­ing com­pli­ance and get­ting in­for­ma­tion to the vot­ers is mak­ing our elec­tions cleaner and bet­ter than ever,” Ger­mond said.

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