Money Printing Press

By Josh Richman
Posted: 05/02/2015 – 04:17:37 PM PDT
Updated: 05/02/2015 – 04:26:59 PM PDT

Just because Gov. Jerry Brown has already run his last election campaign doesn’t mean wealthy contributors can no longer find a way to his heart.

In this year’s first three months, donors directed by the governor gave more than $2.73 million in tax-deductible contributions to two charter schools Brown helped launch as Oakland’s mayor. That’s almost as much as in all of 2014, when Brown vetoed a bill that would have made modest reforms to these “behested payments,” so called because they are given at the behest of an elected official.

If Brown, a master of the practice, keeps up this pace, he could triple his payments from 2008, his most lucrative year.

Top donors include a tribal casino; the controversial CEO of a company that owns 17 California hospitals; the state’s biggest car insurer and its biggest wine exporter; one of the nation’s biggest general contractors; and the nation’s biggest biotech company — all with vested interests in how Sacramento sets policy. Of the 14 top behested donors this year, at least eight gave money to Brown’s 2014 re-election campaign.

The crush of contributions comes as Brown no longer needs campaign donations: Term limits prevent him from running for governor in 2016, and he still has about $19.6 million left over from last year’s re-election campaign.

The governor doesn’t personally benefit from these payments, but he clearly appreciates them — and it’s that gubernatorial goodwill that wealthy special interests want.

“It is cause for concern,” said Bob Stern, a political ethics expert. “The question is: After he’s out of office, will he be able to raise this much money? And the answer is no.”

Stern, who authored the state’s Political Reform Act of 1974 before serving as the Fair Political Practices Commission’s first general counsel, said the charitable contributions obviously aren’t just altruistic. “The governor will tell you that he is not going to do anything differently, that he won’t be affected,” he said, “but the contributors feel they’ll be able to get their phone calls answered when they have a question about public policy.”

Behested payments have been around for a long time but grew tremendously in the past decade, in large part because of Brown. Since becoming governor, he has accounted for three-quarters of all behested payments to statewide officials.

Sometimes a contributor initiates the payment, asking an elected official where money would be most appreciated. Sometimes the politician reaches out to contributors. If the payment is $5,000 or more, the official must report it within 30 days. California is one of only a few states that require any disclosure at all. But unlike campaign contributions, which are limited in each election cycle, there is no cap on how much a special interest can give as a behested payment.

Yet even as California has enacted other reforms to rein in money in politics, “the Legislature as a body by and large is satisfied with business as usual” on behested payments, said Kathay Feng, executive director of the good government nonprofit California Common Cause — even if they “have become such a large loophole that you can drive a truck through it.”

Brown declined to say whether he believes contributors give in order to win his approval and attention; whether he feels influenced by these donations; or whether he sees any need to reform the behested-payment system.

“These donations represent an opportunity for foundations, businesses and individuals to invest in their communities and help students succeed,” said Evan Westrup, Brown’s spokesman. “The governor is very proud of the two schools he founded in Oakland more than a decade ago, which have served thousands of Bay Area students — many the first in their family to go on to college.”

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