The Orange County Register
By Jodi Remke
This is a time of uncertainty in civics, campaigns and governmental ethics in the country. Many questions have been raised about the potential conflicts of interest that flow from the financial holdings of the new president and his cabinet members. On the first day of the new legislative session, members of the House of Representatives tried to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics. In the last several years, the United States Supreme Court has narrowed the ability of government to regulate campaign spending. And the Federal Elections Commission — a six-member board split evenly on partisan grounds — is notoriously deadlocked in enforcing campaign laws at the federal level.
Fortunately, in California there is a different narrative. California voters wisely established the Fair Political Practices Commission more than 40 years ago through an initiative after the Watergate scandal. The FPPC quickly became a national leader in regulating and enforcing conflicts of interest, campaigns and lobbying activity. And we remain a national leader today.
In the last several years, California has been at the forefront of shining a light on dark money in campaigns by prohibiting laundered contributions, changing laws to increase disclosure and enhancing transparency through the use of technology.
Once reserved for hit pieces and attack ads, independent expenditures by special interest groups have seized an increasingly central role in campaigns. The expenditures are protected from limits because, in the Supreme Court’s view, the absence of coordination with the candidate alleviates the danger of corruption. In 2015, the FPPC established a cutting-edge regulation to require the highest degree of separation that is constitutionally permissible between special interests and candidates. This rule reinforces contribution limits and helps keep California elections fair.
We have also improved disclosure and strengthened regulation of lobbying activity. To better capture the wealthy individuals and organizations that seek to influence public officials once elected, we now require additional information about the amounts spent and methods used to influence, and we created a “lobbying presumption” to address those who attempt to evade lobbying registration and restrictions.
When the Federal Elections Commission declined to prosecute a case where foreign money was illegally spent in a California ballot measure campaign, we prosecuted the case which resulted in a fine of more than $60,000. The case underscores that foreign money will not be tolerated in California elections.
In 2016 alone, the FPPC resolved over 1,700 cases and referrals, including 311 enforcement orders totaling nearly $900,000 in fines. We also responded to over 22,000 inquiries statewide, providing invaluable expert advice to candidates, committees and public officials.
And to remain at the forefront, the FPPC is spearheading an innovative project to revise the Political Reform Act. The overarching goal is to streamline and simplify our foundational law without weakening disclosure or sacrificing accountability. A revised Act will improve compliance, strengthen enforcement and encourage participation in government by reducing the complexities of seeking office. More importantly, the project can be a vehicle to help restore public confidence in the political process by highlighting that California has some of the strongest ethics laws and toughest enforcement mechanisms in the country.
The FPPC will continue to tirelessly work to uphold California’s ethics laws and reinvigorate the public’s trust in our government.
Jodi Remke is chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission.