By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
TINCUP More Than Half-Empty?
Grizzled watchdog Shirley Grindle runneth out of patience with the committee responsible for reforming the county’s campaign-finance law
For a few hours nearly every month this past year, you could go to the Orange County Hall of Administration in Santa Ana, take the elevator to the third floor and watch Shirley Grindle fume.
In an over-air-conditioned conference room, a committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors has been trying to rewrite the county’s law limiting the influence of money in campaigns for office. Grindle, a 74-year-old former aeronautics engineer and one-term planning commissioner, wrote and lobbied for the passage of that law—referred to as TINCUP, short for Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics—in the late 1970s. Monitoring its enforcement has been her No. 1 pastime ever since. But, as Grindle likes to say, “I won’t be around forever.” In July 2008, supervisors appointed a committee that would update the law—partly in preparation for the day when Grindle isn’t able to serve as a watchdog.
With its final meeting scheduled for early next year, that committee is approaching the end of its task. And Grindle isn’t happy with the results. “I avoid thinking as much as possible about that stupid committee because every time I think about it, I get very upset,” Grindle says. “My advice to the board would be drop the whole damn thing.”
TINCUP isn’t popular among Orange County’s elected officials and the people who help them get into office. The law caps the amount that any one donor can give to a candidate at $1,600. To many conservatives, the contribution limit is tantamount to an assault on the First Amendment. “In Sunday School, I learned it is a blessing to give,” County Supervisor Chris Norby said during a hearing on TINCUP in February 2008. “And yet the whole purpose of these restrictions on free speech and political giving make it a crime to give and a blessing to receive.”
Supervisor John Moorlach, though, wants TINCUP reformed for different reasons. Portions of the ordinance have been struck down as unconstitutional, while others don’t take into account realities of modern campaigns: the rise of the Internet, lawsuit challenges and debt financing. For her part, Grindle has been lobbying for an overhaul of the way the law is enforced. For decades, she has tracked campaign finance in the county using index cards in her Orange home—one card per donor, listing every contribution that donor has made since 1978. If anyone violates TINCUP by donating too much money to one candidate, Grindle telephones that candidate, and usually, the money is quietly returned.
The power to prosecute those who willingly break the law lies with District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. But TINCUP has never been invoked in any of that office’s criminal or civil prosecutions. Historically, the DA’s office has declined to prosecute campaign-finance compliants due to lack of evidence or, in some cases, referred them to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission—which will punish violations of state laws but not local ones such as TINCUP. Grindle points to those facts as evidence that Rackauckas is unwilling to enforce the ordinance.
The DA’s office disputes such characterizations, saying that none of the complaints filed over the years warranted prosecution. “Shirley Grindle and her nine cats don’t know what [TINCUP] says,” declares DA’s office spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder. “If Shirley or anyone in this world would file a complaint, and if there’s evidence to support it, there’s going to be a criminal filing.”
To take the burden of monitoring the law off Grindle and the DA, Moorlach proposed in February 2008 the establishment of an unelected, apolitical commission that would monitor and prosecute TINCUP violators. The Board of Supervisors, though, rejected that idea by a 3-2 vote. Three months later, the grand jury urged them to reconsider. In response, Moorlach proposed the creation of an ad-hoc committee, which would be staffed with two appointees per supervisor. “I was hoping to clean up the ordinance and make it a little more user-friendly,” he says. “Let’s put together a team, and let’s hammer this out.”
From the beginning, Grindle thought the committee was a “stacked deck.” Among its members are prominent county Republican campaign consultants John Lewis and Adam Probolsky, as well as Phil Greer, the go-to elections attorney for many in the GOP establishment. All three make money from campaigns; it stands to reason, Grindle says, they would profit from a loosening of TINCUP’s restrictions on campaign fund-raising. The presence of supervisorial staffers on the committee also worried Grindle: Three of the supervisors have already voted against an update to TINCUP, and it’s unlikely, she says, their aides would vote differently.
Lewis laughs off accusations of a conflict-of-interest. “You could exclude all campaign consultants, all campaign treasurers, anybody who has a professional involvement in a political campaign,” he says. “But then you’d have a really poor understanding of the practicalities of everything you’re trying to do.”
Grindle believes the majority of committee members are more interested in weakening TINCUP than fixing its deficiencies. Committee-meeting minutes show that the discussion has often centered on whether there should be a county campaign law at all. In a straw vote, a majority of members said they thought TINCUP should be repealed. Members have also lobbied to raise the law’s contribution limit to the level for state legislative candidates: $3,900.
One provision being considered would allow candidates to establish a “defense fund” to pay for representation in legal challenges. Some members—elections lawyer Greer among them—have said there should be no cap on donations to such a fund. “Makes me sick to my stomach,” Grindle says. “Don’t tell me for a minute that some guy who gives $300,000 to you, an elected official, that you aren’t influenced by that when the guy’s project comes up.”
Similarly, a provision about “slate mailers” has proved controversial. In 2002, the Board of Supervisors enacted an ordinance regulating mailed “slates” of endorsements after Lewis allegedly abused a loophole in state and county law while running Norby’s supervisorial campaign. Now, Lewis and others have tried to lessen the slate-mail restrictions in TINCUP, while Probolsky has said he wants to do away with them altogether.
Meanwhile, the issue of how to enforce TINCUP remains unresolved. While Grindle and a few committee members have supported the creation of a commission or the appointment of a “compliance officer” to monitor the law, the majority has advocated leaving that job with the district attorney.
Moorlach’s senior policy adviser, Mario Mainero, has been working with county counsel Ann Fletcher and county assistant CEO Rob Richardson to write a version of TINCUP that reflects the committee’s progress. A draft recently distributed to committee members shows that much of the law’s language has been smoothed out. But on the contentious questions, there’s only a list of the options favored by various committee members.
To Grindle, that means the entire exercise has been a waste of time: The very problems the committee was meant to help solve will be punted back to the Board of Supervisors. If they decide to weaken the law, they’ll need county voters to approve.
“The board has really put themselves in a terrible position,” Grindle says. “If they put this committee into place to solve a problem, then it backfired bigtime.”