Campaign Watchdog: Response Times Key to Enforcement

Grindle-Nelson (p)
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As Orange County supervisors study whether to put the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission in charge of enforcing local campaign contribution limits, longtime watchdog Shirley Grindle is cautiously optimistic about that potential approach.

But she also sees a potential flaw in the FPPC taking charge.

“I don’t have a problem with that if the FPPC can provide the service,” said Grindle, but “I’m concerned about the response time.”

Grindle pointed out that the commission often takes more than a year to investigate political violations. It’s a longstanding critique of an agency that has been seen as underfunded for years.

“It doesn’t do any good to get on his case two years after he’s elected,” Grindle said of politicians.

She said she’d like to see a response-time provision if Orange County ends up contracting with the FPPC.

Calling out local politicians on their violations of Orange County’s campaign finance ordinance known as TINCUP has been Grindle’s passion over the past few decades. Her involvement dates back to writing and advocating for the 1978 voter initiative that established TINCUP.

Yet as Grindle ages — she turns 80 next year — she’s becoming more concerned about who will take up her unofficial job.

“I have been monitoring this stuff since 1978, but I’m not going to live forever,” said Grindle.

Her longstanding vision of a local enforcement commission was largely bolstered by a grand jury report in April, which recommended an independent oversight body that would enforce campaign finance laws among other ethics-related tasks.

It wasn’t the first time a grand jury recommended such a commission. A report in 2008 recommended that voters establish “an official, apolitical oversight commission” to enforce TINCUP.

On the heels of the latest grand jury report, Supervisor Todd Spitzer showed support for Grindle’s vision.

When it came time for county supervisors to respond to the report, Spitzer got no support from his colleagues to pursue the idea.

Instead board members decided to explore contracting with the FPPC to provide ethics training and enforce TINCUP, with Spitzer and Chairman Shawn Nelson forming an ad-hoc committee to study it.

In pursuing that potential approach, Nelson cited San Bernardino County, which recently contracted with the FPPC to audit campaigns for county elected positions and to prosecute violations of their local ordinance. That two-year contract costs $593,000.

The San Bernardino County contract calls for 4,047 hours of FPPC staff and contractor time over a two-year period, split between a “program specialist,” an investigator, attorneys and political reform consultants.

That contract, which the county says is its only agreement with the FPPC on the matter, doesn’t mention response times.

Under the grand jury’s proposal, an independent “oversight authority” would have the power to recommend ordinance changes on a host of ethics issues, including: conflicts of interest, preferential treatment, recusals, gifts, patronage, nepotism, transparency, contract procurement, campaign finance, lobbying and employment of government officials after they leave office. (p. 24)

It would also train local officials on ethics, operate a whistleblower hotline, enforce violations through warning letters and administrative settlements and would “be free to act without political interference.”

The FPPC model, as adopted in San Bernardino County, has the agency audit campaign filings for elected county positions, enforce violations and train candidates upon request.

Grindle’s proposal, meanwhile, calls for a five-member ethics commission to enforce TINCUP violations.

That commission would be appointed by a panel of three retired Superior Court presiding judges. The judges would select commissioners from a pool of at least 15 applicants recommended by members of the Grand Jury Association of Orange County.

Under Grindle’s proposal, commission members would be prohibited from:

  • Holding public office during their term.
  • Participating in political campaigns, including making contributions or publicly supporting a candidate.
  • Employing or being employed by a lobbyist.

Members would also not be:

  • A former county elected official, current department head or executive manager.
  • A former or current elected or appointed official of a national, state or local partisan political committee.
  • Formerly convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving dishonesty or untruthfulness.

Her proposal would allow the chairman of the Board of Supervisors and the commission appointing panel to jointly remove commission members for “substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office, inability to discharge the powers and duties of the office” or violations of the ordinance.

Ultimately, Grindle said, she wants to see the law effectively enforced when she hangs up her hat.

While money still has a powerful role in politics, she said, TINCUP is is designed to help prevent large-scale pay-to-play schemes.

“You know these elected officials like to tell you the money doesn’t influence them. That’s such a big joke,” said Grindle. “They’d be inhuman to not have that affect their decision.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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