Editorial: State political ethics watchdog losing its bite

California’s political ethics watchdog needs to start baring some teeth.

The Fair Political Practices Commission exists to enforce state laws meant to prevent corruption. The bipartisan panel is supposed to police politicians, candidates, lobbyists and donors by making sure they follow campaign finance rules and steer clear of conflicts of interest. When it’s functioning well, the commission exposes misconduct in the political system and clears officials who have been wrongly accused. Its public process holds political players accountable when they break the rules and can deter others from even trying.

But lately, the commission has been taking so long to complete investigations that it’s losing power. It’s overloaded with old, unresolved cases and is not properly prioritizing those that need urgent attention. Elections come and go without answers. The watchdog has no bite.

Take the case of Assemblyman Evan Low, a Democrat from the Silicon Valley who leads a group of lawmakers known as the “tech caucus” because of their interest in tech policy (and, it seems, their interest in donations from tech companies). Nearly three years ago, the FPPC opened an investigation into Low’s fundraising practices that remains unresolved.

The case was sparked by a CalMatters article in February 2020 that reported that Low had stopped disclosing who donated to the nonprofit organization affiliated with the Legislature’s tech caucus. It’s a relevant matter, since tech companies curry favor with lawmakers by giving money to the nonprofit, and their donations pay for lawmakers to attend an annual retreat policy with tech lobbyists — held this year at a swanky resort in the Napa Valley.

In an effort to prevent undue influence and provide transparency to the public, state law requires elected officials to disclose payments made at their request to nonprofits and other organizations. The FPPC investigation set out to determine if low violated “behesed payment” disclosure provisions of the state’s Political Reform Act.

It is important for voters to know the results of investigations filed against candidates when evaluating who they want to represent them. But the low case has languished for so long that two elections have passed since it opened. Low has been reelected twice and this year made a bid to become the next Assembly speaker, one of the most powerful positions in the state. He has aggressively used money to court power — pushing the limit of campaign finance law by putting more than $400,000 from his campaign account into a committee that made independent expenditures to try to influence several Assembly races in the primary. That move falls into a legal gray area where state law is at odds with a superior court ruling.

Another unresolved case involves conservative radio host Larry Elder, who ran for governor in last year’s attempted recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom. The commission opened the investigation in August 2021, after The Times reported that during the campaign, Elder likely failed to properly disclose his sources of income.

The recall effort failed, but Elder has hardly exited politics. This year he formed a fundraising committee to channel money to GOP candidates for House and Senate. He was in Iowa this fall, where he told the Des Moines Register that he was “kicking the tires” as he considers running for president. The FPPC owes voters an answer as to whether he properly disclosed his finances during his run for California governor.

It would be bad enough if these were the commission’s only outstanding cases, but new data from the FPPC show 1,101 unresolved cases that were opened between 2016 and last year. That’s insane.

It’s gotten so bad that even the chair of the commission is asking the staff to pick up the pace. Investigations generally fall into two categories; those that are fairly routine are eligible for a streamlined enforcement process, while those that are complicated require more examination. Chairman Richard C. Miadich said at a recent meeting that the commission completed 77 complex investigations in 2020. This year, the number dropped to 13.

“We need to do something different,” he said. “We need to think more critically about ways that we can improve our transparency, improve our efficiency.”

Miadich has proposed a policy that calls for completing investigations within two years, except in extraordinary circumstances. It involves several intermediary deadlines and better prioritization of important cases. These sound like reasonable ideas, but commission staff immediately pushed back. They already have too much work, staff members wrote in comments to the commission, and argued that they would need to hire additional investigators to close cases more quickly and keep up with changing laws.

“Our case loads are unrealistic, and complaints vary anywhere from incorrect advertisement font size to full financial review/audit,” one staffer wrote.

It shouldn’t be so hard for the commission and its staff to figure this out. The panel has existed since the 1970s, with effectiveness waxing and waning over time. Look back at what worked in the past and make it work again. California needs a strong political ethics regulator to hold officials and candidates accountable. The watchdog may not bite every time, but voters should at least hear it bark.

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