November 20, 2011 | Will Evans

Ann Ravel, Gov. Jerry Brown’s pick to lead the state Fair Political Practices Commission, has been on the job less than a year but is moving quickly and provoking strong reactions.

Ravel’s supporters say she is boldly revamping ethics regulations for the better, making them simpler to understand and follow. Her detractors – which include an outspoken fellow commissioner and the previous chairman – say she is weakening oversight of the watchdog agency by siding with the politicians and lobbyists she is supposed to regulate.

Ravel, who took the gavel in February, said she has focused the agency’s enforcement on major cases like money laundering and conflicts of interest instead of minor filing violations.

“I have done more to (investigate) much more egregious violations of the Political Reform Act than anyone before me,” she said. “What they did before were lots and lots of small violations, and I think you found people who didn’t have respect for what the FPPC was doing.”

Ravel previously worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and was the county counsel for Santa Clara County from 1998 to 2009.

“My interest is to make the FPPC a really central player in the government and political structure of this state,” Ravel added. “I think most people saw it as a minor nuisance instead.”

Dan Schnur, who led the commission before Ravel, said she is steering the agency away from the aggressive stance he and his predecessor, Ross Johnson, took. Both Schnur and Johnson are Republicans who were appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ravel “seems to have decided that the interests of the political attorneys and lobbyists should take priority over those of the voters,” Schnur said.

Phillip Ung, policy advocate for California Common Cause, agreed that Ravel has been less strict than Schnur on those she regulates.

“With Schnur, you had someone who was generally disgusted with the culture and the influence of special interests, and with Ravel, she seems more willing to work with the parties,” Ung said.

Ung said Common Cause also had a “a real champion” in Roman Porter, the commission’s former executive director, who left over differences with Ravel.

Ravel said the commission cannot afford a new executive director because of the large payout Porter received for unused vacation time. Ravel said she had to take away staff perks like cell phones and reimbursed parking. With only $12,000 more than rent and existing salaries for the rest of the fiscal year, Ravel said, “we are barely squeaking by.”

Porter said the budgetary problems cannot be blamed solely on his departure because the commission “has been historically underfunded for the responsibility that it has.”

Commissioner Ronald Rotunda accused Ravel of ramming through her agenda and dismantling ethics regulations. Rotunda is a Republican law professor appointed by Democratic state Controller John Chiang.

“If you think of all these campaign disclosure rules as a kind of a wall protecting people from politicians who may not act in our best interests, I think she’s taking down this wall brick by brick,” Rotunda said.

Rotunda was incensed that Ravel refused to post online a strongly worded letter he wrote objecting to a staff memo on how to handle the Kinde Durkee fraud scandal. The staff counsel’s opinion [PDF] held that in certain cases, Democratic candidates who lost campaign money due to fraud could go back to maxed-out donors for more money. Rotunda contends the memo used “sophistry” to circumvent campaign contribution limits.

By not posting his letter, Rotunda said, Ravel is trying to “muzzle the commissioners.”

Ravel called the letter “an inflammatory document, which impugned the credibility and professionalism of a member of the staff.” She decided not to post it because, she said, “I felt that it crossed the line.”

Ravel said the staff opinion does not represent official policy until the commission votes on it. Significantly, she said, the commission will not resolve the issue in time to affect fundraising for the 2012 elections. In effect, the politicians affected by the scandal will not be able to raise money from maxed-out donors.

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