Governor Jerry Brown’s new chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission has ordered the removal from public view of all current investigations into ethics violations, reversing the open policy adopted by the previous Republican chair of the commission.
New chair Ann Ravel’s April decision came under sharp criticism from open government advocates, ethics experts and the Los Angeles Times editorial page.
The agency had operated under a policy adopted by Dan Schnur, its past chair, an experienced political strategist and Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
The differences in the approaches of the past and current chair might be explained by their professional experiences. Ravel, an attorney, was the former counsel for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors where she provided private advice to city officials on ethics rules.
Traditionally the role is interpreted to mean that the public will not be told what the advice is or whether it was followed. The effect is to immunize public officials from public scrutiny of their ethics transgressions when it might matter to voters.
Schnur, who was communications director for John McCain’s presidential bid in 1980 against George Bush, has extensive real-world experience with campaign strategy and tactics, which often are served by lengthy delays in acting on ethics complaints until long after elections are over.
Ravel: Politicians should be protected from public complaints
Schnur’s policy was strongly protested at the time by the California Political Attorneys Association, the group most often found representing officials charged with violations.
Ravel said she agreed with the view that publicizing complaints “can unfairly cast somebody in a light that is inappropriate and can have a huge detriment to their lives and careers,” according to the LA Times.
Ravel further is quoted by the Times as saying most violations result because officials “are just not well informed about the law.”
Ravel’s new policy includes its own loophole, as she admits. While open investigations will no longer be posted on the FPPC’s public website, the agency agrees it will reveal whether there is an investigation if a simple phone call is made to it.
“So all that will be accomplished by removing the postings is to make public information less easily accessible,” the Los Angeles Times editorialized.
Justice Delayed, Justice Denied?
While the argument that ignorance of the law can be either a defense or a mitigating factor may be unique to political ethics enforcement, the years-long process that has marked FPPC actions on complaints is viewed by many as providing no deterrent to illegal acts during a campaign.
Common Cause took that view, telling the Times “If we don’t find out what our candidates are up to in a timely manner, it’s more difficult to make informed decisions.”
The political attorneys also argued that making public that complaints had been filed with enough substance to initiate an investigation – the standard that Schnur adopted – would result in a rush of politically motivated charges intended to harm an opponent during a campaign.
Schnur, in a separate Times story, refuted the charge that posting information created an increase in politically motivated charges.
Schnur said that fewer complaints were filed with the commission after he started posting notices of open investigations, and suggested that the increased transparency put pressure on candidates to run clean campaigns.
“I know from my work on campaigns that a headline in the days before an election is a much more effective deterrent than a fine that is imposed weeks or months afterwards,” Schnur is quoted as saying in the Times.
Schnur’s estimates of fines that come weeks or months after an election may have been an optimistic projection.
In San Francisco, the largest fine to date was against Pacific Gas and Electric for failing to disclose to the public that it was spending $800,000 in a November 2002 campaign regarding public power.
It took two years, until October 2004, before citizens learned that a record-setting ethics violation took place in the election.
PG&E won its side of the ballot battle as it overwhelmingly outspent its opponents.
Such delays in San Francisco are typical as cases take as long as five years after the election before a finding is made public.
LA Times: Double Standard Favors Politicians
The Times editorial points to inconsistency in providing public information when it comes to allegation of wrongdoing by politicians in the course of their activities.
“It’s public information when a person is arrested – long before he or she is actually convicted – and it’s public information when even the most frivolous lawsuit is filed. So why the sensitivity about these ethics complaints?” the Times editorialized.
In San Francisco, the secrecy veil is drawn even tighter. The Ethics Commission, the City Attorney and the District Attorney all decline to respond to questions on whether a case is under investigation, and later often will decline to state the outcome of the investigation.
On the city’s Ethics Commission page, there are no reports of actions against any complaint since last December, despite a very active and controversial November election season.
For that to change will require a politically culture shift that will make climate change look like a typical summer day.