Monday, June 11, 2001
FPPC Calls New Los Angeles Campaign Finance Laws Invalid
Ethics Commission President Says True Test Could Come in Court
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Two Los Angeles emergency campaign laws that compelled political parties to reveal how much they spent to promote their candidates in last week’s election are invalid, the state Fair Political Practices Commission said Friday.
On a 4-1 vote, the state campaign finance panel adopted an opinion by its legal staff that the disclosure ordinances approved between the April 10 city primary and Tuesday’s runoff are pre-empted by Proposition 34—a state initiative passed by voters last November.
In a five-hour session, the FPPC rejected the argument of Assistant City Attorney Anthony Alperin that as a charter city Los Angeles has the authority to proceed with its own campaign finance program. A majority of panelists agreed with chair Karen Getman that the state had an overriding interest to assure uniform campaign reporting requirements.
State Democratic Party lawyer Lance Olson said the FPPC acted properly in the wake of quickly passed city laws that required his client and other groups to file reports before the election of any money raised and spent for so-called member communications. State law mandates that the source and amounts of donations be disclosed, but not until July 31—nearly two months after voters made their final choices.
“I’m pleased, and I think the commission did the right thing, which is that they upheld state law,” Olson said. “The city of Los Angeles violated state law and the commission now acknowledged that.”
The vote does not resolve a conflict between the FPPC and the city Ethics Commission, which administers and enforces Los Angeles campaign disclosure laws. Commission President Miriam Krinsky said the city laws remain intact.
“It means that we have the contrary view of another agency that we respectfully disagree with,” Krinsky said. “We try to act in concert [with the FPPC] and avoid conflicting interpretations of the law, and that is why it would be our preference that they agreed. But the ultimate arbiter of any dispute would be a court of law.”
Ethics Commission officials had hoped that the FPPC would decline to adopt the staff recommendation or to even consider the Democratic Party’s request for a decision, since the two ordinances adopted by the City Council in April expired with last Tuesday’s election. The council is expected soon to consider a successor ordinance that would apply to all future city elections, but the measure has not yet come to the floor, so city officials argued that the issue was not ripe for FPPC consideration.
But Ethics Commission officials also assert that they have continuing authority under the two expired laws to investigate donors to determine whether they fully and timely complied with the reporting requirements.
It is likely that resolution of the disagreement between the two campaign watchdog panels will come only if a large campaign spender sues to block the Ethics Commission from pursuing an enforcement action based on the two laws.
At issue are the member-communication reporting exemptions in Proposition 34.
Los Angeles campaign finance laws require candidates to report how much money they raise for their races, and from whom. Independent expenditures—money raised and spent to support candidates independently of the campaigns and without any cooperation from the candidates—also must be reported. Spending caps apply to both kinds of expenditures.
Proposition 34 created a new exception for organizations that spend money only to tell their own members how to vote. Those funds are not considered campaign or independent expenditures, and the new state law imposes no spending limits.
It also uses a different disclosure schedule—one that allows certain reporting organizations to file semiannually regardless of when an election is slated. Other organizations have no reporting mandates at all.
City officials were alarmed in the weeks leading up to the April 10 mayoral primary to learn that the Democratic Party qualified as a member organization and was spending hundreds of thousands of unreported dollars to tell registered Democrats to vote for former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. The Republican Party did the same thing on behalf of candidate Steve Soboroff.
After the primary, which eliminated Soboroff and nearly a dozen other candidates but pitted Villaraigosa against City Attorney James Hahn, the Ethics Commission held two lengthy hearings to determine whether to speed a new ordinance into effect to reimplement city disclosure laws, long deemed the keystone of the local campaign finance program.
The panel recommended the law in two parts—one to apply retroactively to the primary, one to the runoff. The City Council approved the laws, but only after debates on the appropriateness of adopting spending ordinances in the middle of a campaign.
Olson, a partner in Sacramento’s Olson, Hagel, Waters & Fishburn—and the primary author of Proposition 34—said Friday that the council’s action was politically driven.
“It was the new mayor saying a couple of months ago that this was something that needed to be fixed and it became an issue,” he said. “I think emotions, rather than reason, prevailed. They ignored state law, they ignored what should have been done correctly and did something expedient.”
Krinsky, an assistant U.S. attorney, said abandoning the Ethics Commission approach would result in a distortion of the city’s carefully crafted campaign finance program.
“It is our belief that charter cities have the prerogative, and in this case have the responsibility, to assure fair campaign laws and disclosure,” Krinsky said.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company