The FPPC Communications Office is here to help you understand the many areas surrounding the Political Reform Act, which is often described as the PRA or the Act.
We try to answer as many questions as thoroughly as possible, but in many cases we are unable to comment on specific situations. The reason for this is fairness. First, absent a full investigation, we do not know all the facts and most situations are very fact specific. Second, we want to avoid any public comment that could impede an ongoing investigation. And lastly, until there is a final resolution of a case, we do not want to accuse or exonerate someone based on an alleged violation of the Act. That’s one reason why "fair" is part of our name. We will conclude whether or not a violation has occurred only after a thorough investigation and a determination by the Commission. With these principles in mind, we often provide answers in general terms.
We also try to provide guidance and point to sections of the law and regulations that are relevant to your questions. Below are answers to some common questions.
At its core, the FPPC regulates and enforces campaign finance reporting for candidates and committees, lobbying activity and conflict of interest issues for public officials. These are the main principles covered by the Act.
In 1974, California voters approved Proposition 9, the Political Reform Act, which created the FPPC to administer, interpret and enforce the law.
The FPPC consists of a five-member, nonpartisan Commission that meets monthly to make decisions on a wide spectrum of matters, including enforcement cases, adopting and rescinding regulations, and taking positions on legislation related to the Act. Commissioners are appointed by various constitutional officers and serve staggered four-year terms. The Governor is responsible for appointing the Chair of the Commission and one other Commissioner from a different political party. The other Commissioners are appointed by California’s Attorney General, Secretary of State, and State Controller. The Commission’s Chair is the only full-time Commissioner and is responsible for setting the overall policy direction for the FPPC. Together with the Chair, the Executive Director provides day-to-day leadership to the Commission’s staff.
The staff is organized into four divisions for specified tasks.
The Enforcement Division investigates and has the authority to administratively prosecute violations of the Act. The team of investigators, attorneys, auditors, political reform consultants and support staff works vigorously to ensure cases are handled swiftly, effectively and fairly.
The Legal Division serves as legal counsel for the Commission, interpreting laws and policies related to the Act. It also provides legal advice to public officials to assist them in complying with the Act through written advice letters, email and phone advice.
The External Affairs and Education Division provides training and educational outreach to a variety of individuals who deal with the Act and also works with the media to answer questions and provide resources and materials to help educate the public.
The Administration Division provides fiscal, technology, personnel, and business services support for the staff and Commission.
Yes, complaints can be confirmed any time after we receive them.
The FPPC is protecting the due process rights of those complained against. It is only fair for those involved to have a chance to see the complaint firsthand before hearing about it in the media. Others may release complaints or information to the media and it’s their right to do so. But as an enforcement agency, our regulation and policy is to ensure due process, maintain fairness and allow for the investigatory process to be thorough and unbiased.
No. The Enforcement Division begins many cases proactively based on learning about potential violations independent of a complaint. For example, media reports on various situations can trigger an investigation.
We also receive referrals from other agencies, including district attorneys, the Franchise Tax Board, local filing officers, IRS, FBI, the Attorney General’s Office, and other states. We work with these various agencies on investigations as well. The details of those partnerships vary from case to case.
The Enforcement Division also operates a campaign audit program of both mandatory and discretionary audits. In addition, the FPPC conducts a random selection process of various campaigns from jurisdictions around the state, with the Franchise Tax Board conducting the audits. Cases also can result from these audits.
We will be able to confirm cases the Enforcement Division initiates and will be able to provide the letter of inquiry’ five calander days after it is sent to the subject.
Obviously, some investigations may be quite sensitive, and the Enforcement Division may not divulge information that may harm, disrupt, or prevent a proper and legal investigation. Under the law, the Chief of Enforcement has the prosecutorial discretion to withhold any information that would jeopardize an investigation or information that is privileged, private or confidential.
Yes. We can provide a copy of the letter stating that we are opening a case and will investigate the situation two days after sending it to the respondent(s). If the complaint is being rejected, we will release that letter immediately.
All sworn complaints are taken under official review to determine if the complaint has merit. This includes determining if the complaint contains enough evidence of a potential violation and whether the allegation is related to the PRA or if it is covered under other laws (e.g., open meetings laws, the prohibition against misuse of public funds, bribery). This initial review usually takes a few days to a few weeks, depending on the circumstances.
If a complaint is found to be without merit, it is dismissed and both the complainant and the subject are informed of this decision.
If a complaint has merit and allegations that fall under the PRA, the parties will be notified and an investigation will commence to determine if there is a violation of the Act.
There is no standard length of time since cases vary in their complexity and difficulty. Each case has its own specific facts and the length of any investigation depends on a variety of factors. However, the Enforcement Division makes every attempt to conduct investigations in a thorough, yet timely manner. On average, ninety percent of our cases are completed (investigation to resolution) within a year.
Each violation of the Act is subject to an administrative fine of up to $5,000. And some advertising disclaimer violations can be fined up to three times the amount of the advertisement.
When there’s enough evidence to prove a violation of the Act, the Enforcement Division will present the case to the Commission with a recommended penalty.
Alternatively, the Enforcement Division may issue a Warning Letter. A Warning Letter states that a violation of the Act has occurred, but for reasons explained in the letter, the case is resolved without a fine. However, a Warning Letter is considered a prior offense in any subsequent case against the person who received it.
If there is insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution, a case may be closed with an Advisory Letter or without further action.
The maximum fine for each violation of the Act is $5,000. The fine for each violation is based on factors such as complexity and seriousness of the case, the harm to the public, the cooperation of those involved, whether the violation was deliberate, negligent or inadvertent, and penalties issued in previous cases that are similar in nature.
- Financial conflicts of interest
- Laundered campaign contributions
- Gift limit violations
- Campaign mass mailing at public expense
- Failure to file or report all interests on required financial disclosure statements (Statements of Economic Interests or Form 700)
- Inadequate, untimely, or no filing of required campaign statements and reports
- Improper campaign reporting
- Improper receipt of campaign funds, including receiving funds from anonymous sources and contributions in excess of limits
- Improper expenditures of campaign funds, including using campaign funds for personal use
- False or misleading campaign materials (As to the content of the communications)
- Election fraud
- Misuse of public funds unrelated to campaign mass mailing
- Violations of the Elections Code, the Penal Code, or any laws other than the Political Reform Act
- Issues related to Federal campaigns
- Open meeting law issues (Brown Act, Bagley-Keene)
- Local ordinances
- Vandalism of campaign signs
- Residency requirements for running for or holding office
Conflicts of Interests
A Statement of Economic Interests (SEI) is commonly referred to as a Form 700. It’s the document public officials have to file detailing their relevant financial interests, such as property, business positions and/or ownership, investments, income, and gifts. The purpose is to give the public the ability to see the financial interests of their public officials to ensure the officials are making decisions to best serve the public, and not acting in their own financial interests. Merely reporting an economic interest is not a conflict in itself; a conflict may arise when a governmental decision made by the official impacts the official's economic interests. The Form 700 is signed under penalty of perjury.
These FAQ’s will cover the basics. There is more specific information here.
Generally speaking, every public official who is elected or appointed to a public agency, board or commission, and the top officials in decision-making positions in government agencies are required to file. Elected officials from the Governor and Legislature, mayors and city councilmembers, county supervisors, school board members, all the way down to members of small local boards, commissions and districts are required to file Form 700s. The Secretary and top leadership of State agencies, and many local agencies (e.g., city manager and top staff, district attorney and top staff) are also required to file.
A good rule of thumb is if someone is an elected official, sits on a board, or works for a public agency and is in a decision-making (policy, contracts, etc.) position, it’s likely they will have to file an SEI.
The Act determines many of these requirements and sets out guidelines for state and local agencies to follow to determine which employees should have to file.
Most state and local officials file with their agency. In most instances, the agency is required to forward the originals for only specified high-level officials to the FPPC.
The State’s Constitutional Officers (Governor, Lt. Governor, etc.), members of the State Legislature (and their top staff), and all judges file their forms with the FPPC. FPPC Commissioners also file with the FPPC. City Councilmembers and County Supervisors file locally and with the FPPC. Retired judges serving on assignment and legislative staff file the Form 700 directly with the FPPC.
Yes. Every agency must provide them to the public. To promote compliance and increase transparency in government, the SEIs for many local and state officials are posted on this websites. Due to privacy concerns, the SEIs have the address, telephone and signature blocks redacted. Copies of the original forms are available for review or copying at the FPPC. If you have trouble finding a particular SEI or have any other questions, please contact the FPPC media office at email@example.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seven years. However, Form 700s for Constitutional officers are kept in perpetuity.
Current deadlines are on the website. They are generally the first of March and April, depending on positions, but may vary if the deadline falls on a weekend. Here are deadlines for the various filers.
- March deadline
- Elected State Officers
- Judges and Court Commissioners
- State Board and Commission Members listed in Government
Code Section 87200
- April deadline
- Most other filers
- Assuming Office and Leaving Office Statements
- Most filers file within 30 days of assuming or leaving office or within 30 days of the effective date of a newly adopted or amended conflict of interest code.
Common things not required to be reported include governmental income, personal real property (their personal residence or a non-rented vacation home), and business or property outside of their jurisdiction without any business dealings within the jurisdiction. (Though an official does not report their personal residence on Form 700, it may still create a conflict of interest for the official in a particular decision.)
A good rule of thumb is the more general the subject, the more likely it does not have to be reported. For example, a mutual fund generally is open to hundreds or thousands of investors, covering dozens or hundreds of companies, therefore the impact of a public official’s decision does not affect just one stock or one person. So a mutual fund does not have to be reported.
The more specific the investment, the more likely it will have to be reported. A public official owning one particular stock or a much more personalized IRA will have a much greater potential of impacting that one stock in a vote or decision, thereby raising a potential a conflict of interest.
Generally speaking, business ownership has to be reported, but not always. It depends on factors such as location, percentage of ownership, client income or total income. There are thresholds and rules on these in the Form 700 instructions. Certain types of interests and sources of income are not always required to be reported, all based on an employee’s duties as provided for in a conflict of interest code.
FPPC Regulation 18700 offers the basic guide and rule. It states: “A public official at any level of state or local government has a prohibited conflict of interest and may not make, participate in making, or in any way use or attempt to use his or her official position to influence a governmental decision when he or she knows or has reason to know he or she has a disqualifying financial interest. A public official has a disqualifying financial interest if the decision will have a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect, distinguishable from the effect on the public generally, directly on the official, or his or her immediate family, or on any financial interest” of the official’s. For example, the financial interests that can cause a conflict for an official include a business interest, real property, and a person who has been a source of income or gifts to the official.
There are many, specific facts that are necessary to have to determine if a public official needs to recuse himself or herself from a particular situation. Generally speaking, if a public official has reason to believe a matter could potentially have a financial effect on his or her own interest, they should recuse themselves. This includes not participating in a discussion, possibly leaving the room, as well as abstaining from any vote.
It’s important to note the responsibility lies in the hands of the public official to be aware of any potential conflict and seek advice from their agency’s attorney or the FPPC Legal Division BEFORE participating in any decision or vote. Failure to do so can result in a violation of the PRA.
No, but other state and local laws may address this issue.
State campaign and lobbying reports are filed with the Secretary of State’s Office. At the local level, they are filed with city and county clerks’ or Registrar of Voters’ offices. The largest category of forms filed with the FPPC are Form 700s. However, we also receive Form 462 (independent expenditure verification) and Form T10 contributors, and some other forms, like to report certain behested payments.
A few of the basic rules include the fact you cannot use campaign funds for personal use or benefit, campaign contributions and expenditures should be carefully recorded and reported on the proper form and filed on time, campaign expenditures should be made with campaign funds, and campaign funds should not be co-mingled with personal or other funds.
There are a number of different types of campaign committees with specific and detailed rules. You can find more information on this under the “Learn” section of the FPPC website.
No, the Act does not regulate the content of political advertising. As long as reporting and disclaimer requirements are met, the actual content does not fall under FPPC regulations and is considered free speech.