Imagine driving on the freeway and you’re pulled over for going slightly faster than the limit. You’d understandably be a little upset at yourself and expect a ticket with a modest fine.
Just then, a high-speed chase flies by you at 140 MPH, with the driver finally being pulled over down the road after purposely avoiding law enforcement. You’d expect that person to be given a hefty fine, maybe even jailed.
But what if both drivers received the same penalty? You’d understandably be outraged.
That’s exactly what happens when unscrupulous public officials take campaign money that doesn’t belong to them and spend it on themselves. Under current law, they face the same penalty as the official who inadvertently makes a minor campaign reporting error.
Recently we’ve seen outrageous examples of officeholders misusing campaign funds for their personal benefit. The former Contra Costa District Attorney used $66,300 in campaign funds for personal benefit, including for hotels, gasoline, and clothing. The former Contra Costa Clerk Recorder, Joe Canciamilla, used over $130,000 in campaign funds to vacation in Asia, remodel a home in Hawaii, pay down a personal loan, and cover other personal expenses. In another instance, former Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa went gambling, using more than $130,000 in campaign and public funds to play the slots and try his hand at the card tables.
Yet, under the Political Reform Act, the state’s law governing campaign spending, the candidate who misspends campaign funds on themselves faces the same maximum fines as the candidate who accidentally makes a campaign reporting mistake. The fine for both is $5,000 per violation. If an official, for example, misspends $100,000 in campaign funds on himself personally in two transactions, the maximum penalty that can be imposed is $10,000, or $5,000 for each transaction. An official who twice inadvertently makes a campaign reporting mistake faces the same fine of $10,000, or $5,000 per mistake.
That doesn’t make sense. The penalty should fit the crime.
That’s why we support AB 1367. The bill, authored by Assemblymember Evan Low, allows the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to impose higher fines when a public official misspends campaign funds for significant personal use, what’s known in the bill as “egregious personal benefit.”
As a sign of our bipartisan support, the FPPC voted to sponsor this bill.
To better deter embezzlement of campaign funds and punish it appropriately when caught, AB 1367 would increase the maximum penalty for campaign spending abuse for egregious personal benefit from the current $5,000 per violation to two times the amount of the campaign money unlawfully spent. So, in the example above, the official who illegally spent $200,000 in campaign funds in two transactions on a Hawaii home and other personal expenses, the penalty could be $400,000, not the lesser penalty currently limited to $10,000.
The bill also defines what exactly an ‘egregious personal benefit’ is, namely, a total value of $10,000 or more in personal benefit to a candidate, official, or person authorized to handle campaign funds.
This bill would help restore some measure of confidence that our leaders will be held accountable for misappropriating campaign funds for personal benefit with consequences more proportionate to the abuse of trust they commit.
The FPPC strongly supports passage of AB 1367 and urges the Governor to sign it into law.