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The state’s five-member Fair Political Practices Commission has three upcoming vacancies and is expecting a new executive director. Some of the panel’s critics are hoping a tougher watchdog emerges.

By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
January 17, 2013

SACRAMENTO — The state agency that polices political spending led a national push to expose secret campaign cash from Arizona last fall. But it has a mixed record of pursuing rule breakers within California’s own political establishment.

Now the Fair Political Practices Commission faces an upheaval on its governing board, and it remains to be seen whether tough enforcement will be on the panel’s agenda when it emerges.

“This is a seminal point in time for the commission,” said Dan Schnur, a former FPPC chairman and current director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

In the last two years, the commission has relaxed rules governing gifts to politicians, including those exchanged between lobbyists and legislators who are romantically involved. It ended public postings on which politicians it was investigating and why. And it lifted a ban on elected officials voting to appoint themselves to paid posts on government boards.

“At times the FPPC seemed to be more interested in protecting incumbents,” than guarding the public’s interests, complained Commissioner Ronald Rotunda, a frequent dissenting vote.

The panel did sue an Arizona organization in an attempt to unmask the secret donors behind its $11-million contribution to a ballot measure campaign fund before last November’s election. It is still engaged in that effort.

The commission also went after campaign treasurer Kinde Durkee, who stole millions from some of the state’s most prominent lawmakers.

Those were safe targets, say open-government activists, who are concerned about the future direction of the commission. The five-member board has three upcoming vacancies and a new executive director is expected.

Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel said she does not want to expend scarce resources on insignificant and unintentional violations of California’s political ethics law, and some rules needed to be streamlined to make compliance less onerous.

The Arizona case, she said, reflects her resolve to redirect the commission’s efforts to more serious and willful wrongdoing. She plans to push for new disclosure rules for independent groups’ political contributions and tougher enforcement on violators.

“We intend to continue to be extremely vigilant and aggressive in going after … serious violations of the Political Reform Act,” Ravel said.

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