Political Watchdog Losing Its Teeth

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Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission are cutting back on rules that limit the gifts lobbyists can give elected officials, are holding fewer open meetings and will no longer tell the public about pending investigations, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

Brown was instrumental in creating the watchdog agency 30 years ago. It’s supposed to enforce laws on election campaigns, lobbying and public employee conflicts of interest, including the governor’s.

From the Times story:

Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel, whom Brown appointed in February 2011, said she was trying to make rules fair, clearer and easier to comply with and to focus on the worst offenders rather than on those who make minor mistakes. But she has outraged some good-government advocates along the way.

“I think the agenda is to basically castrate the commission,” said fellow Commissioner Ronald Rotunda, a Chapman University law professor appointed by the state controller.

The panel prosecuted some big cases against politicians in the five years before Ravel took over, assessing them large fines, and tightened restrictions on the activity of public officials. Ravel, a veteran government attorney, said Brown gave her no marching orders when he appointed her.

“What we want to do is make sure that public officials use their positions for the good of the public and aren’t doing it for their own self-interest,” she said in an interview in her downtown Sacramento office.

The commission was born as part of the Political Reform Act, an initiative co-authored by Brown and approved by California voters in 1974 after a series of political scandals. So that no single official has undue influence over it, two members are appointed by the governor and one each by the attorney general, secretary of state and controller.

But because Brown was California’s attorney general before becoming governor a year ago, he has appointed the majority of commission members. He also made the body’s top attorney a political appointee rather than a civil servant, which allows the governor to replace the person who advises the commission and politicians on what’s allowable.

Brown declined to be interviewed. His spokesman, Gil Duran, said the governor has no specific agenda for the commission but supports what his chairwoman is doing.

— TRACY WOOD

 

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