By David Siders
Published: Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

Gov. Jerry Brown has seized uncommon influence over the political watchdog agency he helped create almost four decades ago as an independent body.

The Democratic governor’s appointees control the five-member Fair Political Practices Commission because of a quirk in the law. And Brown recently shifted the high-level position of general counsel from a civil service post outside his purview to a political appointment he has now made.

The appointment of Department of Justice lawyer Zackery Morazzini to be the commission’s chief lawyer, announced Monday, was met by criticism that it could further politicize the agency.

“The FPPC is designed to be more of an independent watchdog,” said Derek Cressman, Western regional director of Common Cause, the government watchdog group. “That’s not necessarily something where you want to see someone putting their allies.”

Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel said Wednesday that Brown only confirmed her selection of Morazzini, a Republican. She said Brown, the former attorney general, neither suggested Morazzini nor advocated for him, and she said she – not Brown – asked the administration to reclassify the open position so she could interview candidates from outside state employment.

“I had no candidate in mind,” Ravel said. “But I wanted to make sure that there was broad recruitment done.”

Ravel said of Brown’s involvement with the FPPC, “In my tenure, and with respect to this governor, there is no indication whatsoever of any influence, either to me or to the general counsel.”

Brown helped create the Fair Political Practices Commission when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983. The commission, which oversees campaign finance and ethics laws, became increasingly aggressive in recent years, and in returning to the Capitol for a third term Brown recast it. Ravel, his appointee, criticized what she called “unprofessional” practices, removing from the commission website a list of open investigations, among other measures.

By law, the commission includes two members appointed by the governor, currently Ravel and lawyer Sean Eskovitz. But Brown also made an appointment before becoming governor, when he was attorney general. That commissioner, Lynn Montgomery, is not scheduled to go off the commission until January 2013.

Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and a former co-author of the state’s Political Reform Act, said the commission was meant to be composed of a diverse group of appointees and that Brown’s three allows the governor too much influence.

“I think we probably made a mistake on that, and that should not be permitted,” Stern said.

Brown’s appointment of Morazzini did not concern Stern, however. As long as the commission recruited and selected Morazzini, Stern said, his appointment was appropriate.

State law allows governors to exempt positions from civil service in some cases, and the action is not without precedent at the FPPC. Brown’s predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in 2007 reclassified two lower-level civil service positions within the agency, appointing a communications director, now-Executive Director Roman Porter, and an assistant chief counsel of the agency’s enforcement division, Porter said.

The positions went vacant and were left unfilled during budget reductions last year, he said.

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