Ross Johnson, outgoing head of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, calls for sharper sanctions for libel in campaign ads and wants similar spending caps for candidates for statewide office.

By George Skelton Capitol Journal

April 25, 2010

Ross Johnson says if he were “king”— rather than merely the state’s lead campaign watchdog — he’d invoke the political death penalty for any candidates who libeled their opponents.

Yank them off the campaign trail. Or, if they’d already reached office, boot them out.

He’d make candidates subject to the same libel laws that apply to newspapers when they write about public officials.

It’s harder to libel a politician than an ordinary citizen. Basically, a public figure must prove that an article was false and was published with reckless disregard of the truth.

By that standard, there are libelers all over the political landscape. Show me a candidate who isn’t at least occasionally guilty of spewing misinformation with reckless disregard for the truth. Certainly not gubernatorial contenders Meg Whitman or Steve Poizner.

Johnson, outgoing chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, says if he had his way, a candidate “who said anything in a campaign ad or mail piece or other communication that was found by a court to be libelous, they’d forfeit their office. Or … their candidacy would be terminated.”

“That would do an e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s amount to reduce the incivility. If you’re busting your behind to raise money to run for office … boy, you’ll be sitting around and going over every one of your communications with a fine-tooth comb. And you’re going to be a whole lot more civil in the way you talk about your opponent.”

Actually, the idea isn’t quite as far-fetched as it might seem.

As a Republican state assemblyman in 1982, Johnson sponsored such legislation. “I had a little head of steam behind it and was getting support,” he recalls.

Then a Democrat hijacked the bill and inserted an amendment that made it essentially inoperative: The political death penalty only could be carried out if it were proven “that the libel or slander was a major contributing cause” of an opponent’s defeat.

The Legislature passed the measure and placed it on the ballot. Voters approved it narrowly in 1984. And the law still sits in the state Constitution, unused.

“What are you going to do,” Johnson asks, “go around to the voters and unscrew the tops of their heads and figure out why they voted as they did?”

But without the poison-pill amendment, Johnson says, “I still think that’s a great idea.”

Johnson, 70, has a bunch of ideas about how to help clean up state politics.

He’d require every politician, from the time he first ran for local sewer board, to acquire an identification number, similar to a Social Security number. Decades later, when that politician runs for governor, voters could punch the number into a computer and track which interests had been supporting him throughout his career.

He’d make campaign contribution and spending reports more user-friendly on the Internet. “I am computer ignorant,” he says. “But someone with a reasonable level of intelligence and modest understanding of computers ought to be able to get on and access the records.”

He’d make every candidate for state office, whether the Assembly or governor, run with the same contribution limit. Now the individual donor cap for a legislative candidate is $3,900; for governor it’s $25,900. Under federal law, a U.S. Senate candidate can raise only $2,400 a pop.

“It makes absolutely no sense,” Johnson says. All candidates should be limited to the lower amount, $2,400.

And he’d require politicians to report more of the tax-deductible donations for charitable gifts that are presented in their name, or “behest,” by special interests. Now, they only have to disclose an interest’s “behest” donation when it exceeds $5,000 in a calendar year. Johnson would lower that to $1,000. “There have been abuses,” he asserts.

Johnson has the credentials. The former Orange County lawmaker spent 26 years in the Legislature, serving stints as Republican leader in each house.

He was a staunch fiscal conservative. A legendary one-sentence Johnson floor speech summarized his ideology and typified his style: “I say this is a tax increase, and I say to hell with it.”

But Johnson also was passionate about political reform. He and his wife once mortgaged their house to finance signature-gathering for an initiative to limit contributions.

“Everybody has a right to expect that their representatives are going to be responsive to them, not to whoever can shuffle the most cash into their campaigns,” he told me in 1996. “The amount of money in campaigns is obscene.”

It’s even uglier today.

Johnson was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as commission chairman in 2007. He’s leaving Friday because of health reasons.

Under his tenure, the commission has made it more difficult for foundations that pay for politicians’ boondoggle travel — such as Schwarzenegger’s — to hide the identities of their donors.

If a politician controls a ballot measure fundraising committee, he no longer can transfer money from it to another pot — as then-Senate leader Don Perata did in 2008 when he emptied funds into his legal defense account.

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