Brown campaign violation deemed 'minor'

Legal News Line Jul. 21, 2008, 5:00pm

Jerry Brown (D)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-A published report in Monday's Los Angeles Times claimed several influential California legislators along with Attorney General Jerry Brown were "quietly let off the hook," for campaign finance violations.

But officials at the Fair Political Practices Commission, the agency that issued the warning, told Legal Newsline the warning sent to Brown was consistent with the nature of the complaint and did not warrant the time and expense of leveling and collecting fines.

FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter said issuing warning letters has been a common practice over the last five years for the independent state agency charged with investigating violations of campaign finance laws.

But under the direction of Chairman Ross Johnson, a former Republican state senator, the practice has become more common. Porter said the commission, which sent 30 warning letters before Johnson arrived in February 2007, sent 294 letters during his first year at the helm.

Porter said the letters help correct a potential problem determined to be of a less serious nature without the time and cost of issuing fines.

A vast majority of the cases resolved through written warning are what Porter termed "documentary cases that don't require any more investigation other than reviewing the form is filed. You have the information before you whether it was filed properly or not."

In 2005, prior to Johnson and Porter's arrival, the FPPC was forced to close 225 unresolved cases that it had investigated and deemed prosecutable due to budgetary constraints, according to an article in the American Chronicle.

Legislation by state Sen. Deborah Ortiz to restore the budget of the FPPC failed in the Senate in 2006.

Porter said by issuing a greater number of warning letters, violations could be corrected leaving more of the agency's resources to prosecute more egregious violations.

Porter said the shift in policy has led to significant victories this year for the commission, including fining state Sen. Carole Midgen, D-San Francisco, $350,000 for 89 violations, the largest penalty given to a sitting legislator in the state.

The agency has also prosecuted cases of laundering money through campaigns and other cases they consider to be of "greater public harm."

"While we are sympathetic to the person making the actual complaint," Porter said, "we look at not only the individual actions, but actions relative to all the things we are looking into."

Simply put, the commission can only do so much with the budget they have to work with. Within those budget constraints, priority is given to the most serious cases, Porter said.

"It's an issue of asset allocation," he said.

Critics of the changes told the Los Angeles Times that the letters of warning do not notify the public of a violation as issuing a fine would. Further, with the state legislators voting on the FPPC's funding, some voiced concern that the policy shift is intended to win the favor of legislators who will soon vote on the FPPC's budget.

"That seems a conflict of interest that is disconcerting," Jim Mangia, founder of the Coalition of Public Reform, told the Times.

Porter defended the FPPC's policy shift.

"If you look at our track record over the past year," he said, "we've done a number of things to increase the transparency of the commission. It's not a concerted effort to provide less information, but to be more efficient."

Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media told Legal Newsline that the FPPC's policy shift is more a matter of pragmatics, necessary in light of the commission's budget.

"Ross (Johnson) has been trying to make this more bipartisan and less political," O'Connor said. "These are minor infractions, and rather than have the legal costs of a fine, the warning corrects the problem. They do have bigger fish to fry and less resources to fry them, so it's a good thing to focus on the bigger problems."

Porter said the warnings are a good first step. If repeated warnings are issued, "serial violators" are often fined. So too are those who fail to correct the problems mentioned in the warning.

Gareth Lacy, Brown's former deputy campaign manager, told Legal Newsline that the violation was of a technical nature and was amended properly.

"We voluntarily disclosed the details during the commission's audit," Lacy said. "We support the commission's decision."

Lacy said Brown received a one-page letter outlining the problem, which was corrected.

"This certainly fits the definition of a technicality," Lacy said.

While Brown's infraction was mentioned in the first sentence of the Times report, his name was never again discussed, nor was the specific nature of his violation explained. Porter declined to discuss the specifics of Brown's violation.

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