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By Jim Cameron | 02/06/13 2:10 PM PST

Ann Ravel, California’s political watchdog, captured public attention in November when she squared off against an obscure but well-heeled group calling itself Americans for Social Responsibility.

The Arizona-based nonprofit poured $11 million at the 11th hour into the California campaign opposed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative, Proposition 30. On the eve of the election, the group admitted it was an intermediary and not the true source of the contribution as Ravel, the chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, demanded disclosure.

“We will continue in this matter and all others to ensure that the people of California know who is funding political activity in this State,” she noted.

The dispute, which received wide attention in the media, was right up Ravel’s alley: She doesn’t mind picking a fight in her quest for transparency and she doesn’t like to sweat the small stuff.

As the head of the FPPC, Ravel enforces the Political Reform Act, a state law spawned by the Watergate scandals of the 1970s. And from the day the FPPC first opened its doors in 1975, the agency has been poking into pushing for disclosure ever since. Its power really rests in media attention and civil penalties, although it can refer cases to prosecutors for criminal prosecutions.

Ravel has evoked strong reactions, such as when she proposed that campaigns report when they pay bloggers for favorable mention. That plan was scaled back sharply amid free-speech concerns raised by professional bloggers.

Dan Schnur, Ravel’s predecessor as chair of the FPPC, complained that Ravel believed “that the interests of the political attorneys and lobbyists should take priority of those of the voters.”

But communications pro and political scientist Larry Gerston wrote that Ravel was “using her office in a refreshingly proactive manner” and called her a “game changer in California politics,” observing that she has “pump(ed) energy into a once-moribund office.”

Fellow commissioner Ronald Rotunda has accused Ravel of tearing down ethics regulations, while Phillip Ung of California Common Cause, the campaign reform group, says that she has been more lenient than Schnur and more cooperative in working with parties involved.

But amid the rhetoric, Ravel maintains that she has done more to investigate serious violations of the Political Reform Act than others in her position and avers that she is more interested in unearthing major cases like money laundering and conflicts of interest than minor violations that occupied the attention of predecessors.

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