By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Pitney remains wary. “It’s not surprising that Ross Johnson has become an advocate of reform,” he says. “Many retired politicians shudder when they look back on their fund-raising days. Mentally healthy people don’t enjoy begging for money, and Mr. Johnson has always seemed quite sane.”
“People can say, ‘You’re a hypocrite, you took large contributions.’ Yes, I did,” Johnson says. “As a member of the minority party, I was still always near the top of the fund-raisers. But I always felt the rules should be changed, and I always carried legislation to do this.”
* * *
Johnson has often been accused of having a dark side. Angered with fellow Republican Chuck Quackenbush’s vote on an education-funding bill in 1992, Johnson lunged at him and had to be restrained. Johnson admitted to the Weekly that his temper got the better of him this past spring. After the FPPC charged state Senator Carole Migden with 89 election violations, the San Francisco Democrat agreed to pay a record $350,000 fine—then sued the FPPC for $1 million, claiming her First Amendment free-speech rights were violated when the FPPC forbade her from using in her reelection campaign $647,000 in political contributions she raised in previous Assembly and Board of Equalization races.
At March’s state Democratic Convention, Migden accused Johnson of “Nixonian” behavior. Johnson shot back that Migden was trying to bully the FPPC, which filed a $9 million countersuit, detailing her career of alleged fund-raising infractions. The mess was finally settled on Oct. 15, when Migden agreed to pay the FPPC $40,000 to resolve the allegations and the commission picked up her attorney’s fees. Weeks before the settlement was reached, Johnson sheepishly confided that he should have kept his mouth closed.
But Migden wasn’t complaining when the FPPC, under Johnson, shed light on the massively unfair funding advantage her opponent had in the June 3 Democratic primary. A preliminary injuction allowed Migden to tap into the $647,000, but that was no match for the war chest Assemblyman Mark Leno amassed thanks to loopholes in state campaign-finance laws. Leno cruised to victory; the volatile Migden leaves office this month.
Virtually unregulated independent expenditures no doubt sealed Leno’s victory. While state law limits contributions to a candidate’s formal campaign committee, courts have held that independent-expenditure committees can raise and spend unlimited amounts so long as they do not use such “magic words” as “elect this candidate” or “oppose that candidate.” Fat cats can therefore spend freely for advertisements that proclaim their chosen candidate supports the troops, or that or his or her opponent is no friend of America’s heroes. More than $100 million in independent expenditures has been spent in California races since 2001.
“Independent expenditures are very frustrating,” Johnson says. “There is no question about it.”
Voters often assume the ads produced by these shadowy committees are paid for by the individual contributions to candidates, but they are actually funded by one person or a select few with narrow special interests. The FPPC’s concerns about the fairness of California elections was summed up in the June report “Independent Expenditures: The Great Gorilla in Campaign Finance.”
After thanking them for including so many Orange County references in the report that focused on the 2006 election cycle, Johnson replies, “It just happened that way,” while Porter adds, “We just looked where the action was.”
Orange County was indeed a hotbed. Supervisor-turned-state Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) was listed among the “Million Dollar Babies,” the handful of candidates who for the first time in state history received more than $1 million each in independent expenditures. Correa benefitted from $1.1 million in independent expenditures in the June primary against Tom Umberg and another $1.2 million in the November general election against Republicans Lynn Daucher and Otto Bade, who received independent expenditures from the same committee that funded Correa, split the vote with Daucher and watched Correa ultimately win the race. The report also outed state Senator Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) for having received $75,000 in ’06 from the committee that ranked No. 1 among “The 10 Fattest Cats”: the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, which doled out $6,832,600 from 2001 to 2006. Calls to Correa and Harman seeking comment for this story were not returned.
After identifying and recommending ways to deal with independent-expenditure committees, the FPPC discovered an alarming new trend since the June primary: the rise of another shadowy layer of influence, subcommittees tied to the independent-expenditure committees. Where the mothership committee may be known as “Americans for Truth, Justice and the American Way,” its subs often include candidate names (i.e., “Teachers for Assemblyman Joe Blow” or “Educators United Against Jane Doe”). By law, Assemblyman Blow cannot coordinate with any independent committee or subcommittee, but knowing they exist and are seeded with gobs of cash could embolden Blow and chill Doe.
As a result, on Oct. 16, the commission weighed strengthening its regulations to, as Johnson put it, “let sunshine in.” The sweeping proposals would force the title of committees controlled by a candidate to include his or her name, the office being sought and the year of the election. Independent-expenditure committees set up primarily to support or oppose a candidate would also have to include the candidate’s last name, the office sought, year of the election and whether the committee is for or against the candidate. All committees would have to disclose who their top contributors are, the amounts of their donations in descending order, and the identities of the top decision-makers. As one recommendation puts it, “Politicians and major donors may have an interest in disguising their involvement in a campaign if voters would react negatively knowing how extensively they are involved.” A public-comment period has opened in advance of the commission’s formal vote on the proposals as early as December.