elected officials might have thought they’d have a friend atop the
state’s campaign watchdog agency when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
selected a former state legislator to head California’s Fair Political
It hasn’t quite turned out that way.
former Republican senator Ross Johnson was appointed just more than a
year ago, the agency has taken several steps to increase disclosure of
campaign donations and has had several run-ins with elected officials.
Johnson said his aggressive stance on behalf of campaign finance laws should not be surprising.
who thinks because of my background in elective office that I am going
to fix traffic tickets for anybody, they not only don’t know me, they
couldn’t have been paying any attention to me during the 26 years I was
in the Legislature," Johnson told The Associated Press in a recent
He acknowledges he was a partisan and a leader in
the Republican Party when he held elected office, but his focus shifted
to the center when Schwarzenegger appointed him.
"The day I
took the oath of office as chairman of the Fair Political Practices
Commission, I ceased to be a player," he said. "I became a referee or
umpire, and my job is—the job of this agency is—to enforce the law and
call them as we see them."
The five-member commission has limited use of politician’s legal defense funds and required greater disclosure of how they spend campaign donations and the travel gifts they receive.
has begun posting the contributions state elected officials arrange for
their pet projects on the its Web site and has set up a toll-free
number (1-800-561-1861) to report alleged violations of campaign
The commission also is looking at ways to force greater disclosure of donors to independent expenditure committees.
agency has generated attention lately for its investigations of state
Sen. Carole Migden at a time when the San Francisco Democrat is
embroiled in a difficult primary campaign.
recently imposed a record $350,000 fine on Migden, who acknowledged 89
violations of campaign finance laws, including using more than $16,000
in contributions for personal purposes.
The FPPC is locked in a
separate federal court fight with Migden over whether she can tap
$647,000 in old contributions for her campaign for a second Senate
term. In recent days, the agency filed a $9 million countersuit that
alleges Migden repeatedly and deliberately violated California’s
campaign finance laws.
Migden’s supporters say the actions are politically motivated.
The agency’s moves since Johnson took office have been mostly praised by political reform groups.
Balber, an advocate for Consumer Watchdog, the Santa Monica-based group
formerly known as the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said
Johnson has "really taken a hard look at some of the more obvious
problems and loopholes in campaign laws and started to close the
Johnson, a 68-year-old lawyer from Orange County, isn’t
a newcomer to efforts to regulate campaign contributions, although
sometimes his motives and tactics have been questioned by other
supporters of tougher campaign finance laws.
"He has certainly
been involved in stymieing reform as a legislator," said Robert Stern,
a former attorney for the FPPC who now serves as president of the
Center for Governmental Studies, a political think tank based in Los
Angeles. "I see him differently now. He is taking his role as chairman
Johnson said people who question his devotion
to campaign finance reform should look at Proposition 40 of 1984, an
initiative he called "the strongest campaign finance law ever proposed
in the state of California."
He and his wife were the major backers of the campaign.
proposition would have put a $1,000 cap per fiscal year on
contributions to state candidates and allowed a donor to give no more
than $10,000 altogether to a group of candidates in any one fiscal
year. It also would have authorized partial public financing for
candidates whose opponents spent their own money on their races.
jokes that the measure attracted "the greatest coalition in the history
of the state of California: the state Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO,
the Republican Party, the Democrat Party—any interest group you could
"Of course, they were all opposed," he added.
Proposition 40 lost by 2.5 million votes.
was luckier four years later. In 1988, voters approved Proposition 73,
a contribution limit initiative backed by Johnson and two other
legislators. Courts later threw out most of its provisions.
2000, Johnson was part of a two-house conference committee that drafted
the legislation that later became Proposition 34, the set of campaign
contribution limits the state operates under today.
contended Proposition 34 was an attempt by lawmakers to avoid the
possibility that appeals courts would overturn a lower court decision
and reinstate tougher donation limits. Those limits had been imposed by
voters when they approved Proposition 208 in 1996.
Proposition 34 was a "step in the right direction," although its
contribution limits were too high. They range from $3,600 per election
for contributions to legislative candidates to $24,100 per election for
candidates for governor.
He said the limits should be
"dramatically lower" and that the use of independent expenditures and
other ways around the limits should be banned. But that would take new
laws and in some cases a change in attitude by the courts.
His performance on the FPPC hasn’t been free of criticism.
reform groups have expressed concern about the fact that fines imposed
by the commission dropped to a seven-year low in 2007 while the number
of warning letters issued in the 12 months after Johnson was appointed
in February 2007 increased almost 10 fold.
Johnson said most
the fines imposed last year were in the works before he took office.
The increased use of warning letters instead of fines is an attempt to
focus enforcement efforts on serious violations, such as
money-laundering scams in which contribution limits are skirted by
funneling money from one wealthy donor through several accomplices, he
"I think the great bulk of violations occur out of sheer
inadvertence," he said. "People just didn’t understand what their
reporting obligations were."
Senate Minority Leader Dick
Ackerman, R-Tustin, said the FPPC under Johnson, a former iron worker
and railroad hand, has been more evenhanded. Ackerman said it also is
quicker in dealing with potential violations and resolving old
complaints that left clouds hanging over candidates’ heads.
don’t think there was any thought that that he was going to be friendly
just because he was one of us," Ackerman said. "I supported him, and
many people—both Republicans and Democrats—supported him because they
knew he would be fair."
Migden’s supports say the FPPC has been
too harsh in its treatment of the San Francisco lawmaker, who is facing
a tough primary election campaign against two fellow
Democrats—Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco and former Assemblyman
Joe Nation of San Rafael.
The FPPC filed the $9 million
countersuit against Migden after she went to court to challenge the
agency’s refusal to let her use the $647,000 she raised while in the
Assembly. Migden wants the money for her Senate re-election campaign.
Richie Ross, a campaign consultant for Migden, criticized the agency’s countersuit.
FPPC is a political body and clearly somebody made a political
decision," Ross said. "I suspect she never voted for one of his bills
and he never voted for one of hers. This is being played out in his new
role, and he senses that she is vulnerable. Once a player, always a
Johnson said he doesn’t interfere with decisions by
the agency’s enforcement staff about which cases to pursue. He said the
decision to sue Migden was approved by the entire five-member
commission, three of whom, like Migden, are Democrats.
"We are enforcing the law, and that’s it," he said.
On the Net: http://www.fppc.ca.gov