When the sky became the limit for most political spending after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the skywatchers like Ann Ravel had to readjust their telescopes. As head of California's Fair Political Practices Commission, she policed the money spent on candidates and initiatives, like a last-minute $11 million that showed up late in the game in 2012 from a shadowy Arizona nonprofit. Last week, the FPPC levied $16 million in penalties on "dark money" players — including that Arizona group — that circumvented state reporting rules. Ravel will no doubt be meeting their like again as the newest member of the Federal Election Commission, which is evenly divided, by design, between Republicans and Democrats. She doesn't intend for that to mean stalemate.
A record $16 million levied against political groups that improperly reported donor sources for spending directed against Proposition 30 and for Proposition 32. Nothing like leaving your old job with a bang!
It was not exactly planned. As it turned out, we definitely had to work to make sure it happened.
Among the most controversial of the groups was one obscure Arizona nonprofits linked to the Koch brothers, though a spokesman for their company denies it.
We were told by witnesses in the case — one of them was [GOP political consultant] Tony Russo — that they went to the group because it was a Koch brothers network group. We have no reason to doubt that.
Some critics have said the state Fair Political Practices Commission is too powerful; on the other side, there's an argument to give it more authority.
This case did indicate we need more authority. It was a battle all the way to the [state] Supreme Court, right before the election, before we were able to at least find out who the actual donors were, although we still didn't really know who they all were. It took a long time to go through the court process.
The FPCC is sponsoring legislation that will make it [harder] for these 501(c)(4)s and other nonprofits to hide donors: If they make a contribution in California for a political campaign, they will have to give the names.
Do you agree, as the U.S. Supreme Court has said, that money equals speech in politics?
I'm a pragmatic person. We have to deal with what the court has said. What is important for me is, how do we make it better for people, given the legal environment we're in. What is left in campaign finance reform is disclosure, and that's what needs to be the thing we fight for.
Justice Louis Brandeis said sunlight is the best disinfectant; Justice Antonin Scalia has said pretty much the same thing. You agree that you can't have it both — unlimited donations and secrecy?
That's the issue in a nutshell. Justice Scalia said it very well: If you're going to permit unlimited contributions, then it's important that, number one, they not be coordinated with the candidate, and number two, that people have the right to know about it.
Companies and individuals that oppose disclosure worry that people who disagree with their politics may boycott them.
Then they shouldn't be making those contributions.
In the FPPC cases, the nonprofits seemed to have been created to muddy the disclosure waters — groups within groups, like Russian nesting dolls.
The lengths these groups have gone to try to hide the identities of the true donors are quite astounding. In a case involving initiatives, the public is acting as legislators for the day, so they need as much information as they can get about who's behind campaigns to make good decisions about proposed legislation. To be purposely denied that information is a really significant problem in the political process.
The FPPC will now require disclosure when bloggers and others online are being paid by the subjects of their opinions.
Now any campaign committee must detail the money that's going to pay for online content that's favorable to the candidate or unfavorable to another. The inspiration is the Federal Trade Commission telling people putting [product] endorsements online that they need to advise the public if they're being paid by the company. It makes sense; if you knew that [an endorsement] was actually being paid for [in that way], you might evaluate the information differently.
Is campaign finance regulation a game of cat and mouse, and sometimes you're the cat, and sometimes you're the mouse?
Campaigns are serious business and people are going to be looking for loopholes. And in cases where it undermines disclosure, I think it's important to try to close those loopholes. Sometimes at the FPPC before I came, people were so concerned about every little loophole, and in most cases, you shouldn't be regulating against one scofflaw. That led to the FPPC having really burdensome, complicated regulations. But with regard to campaign disclosure, it needs to be monitored carefully.
How will working at the FEC be different?
At the FPPC, I was the chair. It's a five-member commission and I was the only full-time member, so it is possible to reach consensus more often, probably, than on a six-member commission. And the chair of the FPPC has more independent authority to act on behalf of the commission between meetings. I'm looking forward to thinking of ways to achieve consensus [on the FEC] even though it is a 3-3 [Democrat-Republican split].
Both [commissions] were enacted around the time of Watergate. People really did want more disclosure around political campaigns. I think California is more willing to take some risks and do things more quickly to respond to problems. The size of the country and the significance of presidential campaigns, that's probably why the federal [agency] is set up to be a little less active.
What about Sen. John McCain's calling the FEC a "muzzled watchdog"?
I'm always interested in a challenge. With myself and the other new commissioner [filling vacancies], hopefully there's going to be a greater opportunity to get things completed, for sure.
It's so slow. The FEC or the FPPC acts, but the election's long over.
It's important to get the information to the public prior to the election, when it counts – not a year or two later. At that point, it doesn't matter and [for] most campaigns, it's just a cost of doing business.
Do you make a distinction between technical violations of election law and willful violations?
Definitely, although some technical violations are significant and [willful], or at least the person should have known it was their obligation to make the disclosure. I'm more concerned about violations that truly affect the public trust, [like] disclosure before an election.
I wonder whether politicians are remorseful about passing campaign finance laws after Watergate: "Did we really promise to tell people how much we're getting in campaign contributions and from whom?"
[Laughs.] One of the bills the FPPC sponsored is the online financial interest form for candidates and all public officials, employees in counties and cities and water districts, almost 500,000 people. That's going to be increased disclosure, and the Legislature approved that unanimously!
How did you get interested in this work?
I used to be county counsel in Santa Clara County. We did a lot of consumer cases; one of them was a case against paint companies for lead paint in homes mostly occupied by poor people. When I got this job at the FPPC, it occurred to me that it was very similar: It's about giving information to people so people will trust in government and want to participate in the system.
Have you ever given money to a campaign?
I discovered how much I had given when I had to fill out my forms for the job! I gave some money to [presidential candidate] John Kerry. I gave a lot more money to Hillary Clinton. I gave some money to Obama. And in California, I gave money to [Atty. Gen.] Kamala Harris.
Once I started working for the Department of Justice, before I came to [the FPPC], I couldn't give anymore, and I haven't given any money since 2009.
firstname.lastname@example.org This interview is edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. Twitter: @pattmlatimes.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun