The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission set a new record in 2014 for total prosecutions, and the state watchdog agency is proactively going after new cases on an unprecedented scale, according to its most recent annual report.
More than 1,000 cases were closed with “proven violations,” the report states. Also, the agency opened 549 cases last year proactively, meaning it didn’t wait for an official complaint before investigating suspicious activity. That’s approximately 10 times as many as the agency opened in 2012.
The number of money laundering investigations is also at its highest level ever in the agency’s 40-year history, according to the report.
FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said his agency wanted to send a message to public officials who might be tempted to spurn the rules agency’s rules on governing financial disclosure, conflicts of interest and campaign activities: it’s much easier to consult the FPPC’s legal division for advice and abide by its regulations than to get caught and have to pay the fine.
“We do have teeth. We do mean business,” Wierenga said.
The FPPC investigates and enforces potential violations of the 1974 Political Reform Act. The act governs how public officials should avoid conflicts of interest and requires them to publicly disclose income sources, gifts, real estate, and campaign contributions and expenses, among other things.
Each violation of the act can carry a fine of up to $5,000.
Part of the reason for the boost in proactive cases is that the agency has been able to streamline the process for handling minor violations — like late filing of disclosure forms — thus freeing up investigators to pursue larger cases.
The result has been a greater emphasis on potential violations uncovered by Voice of OC and other media outlets, Wierenga said. Also, the agency has been able to close 90 percent of cases it opens within one year, according to the annual report.
Wierenga said credit for the faster closure rate goes to FPPC Enforcement Division Chief, Gary Winuk, who took over in 2009. The agency had a large backlog of cases before Winuk arrived, Wierenga said.
“It’s part process, part policy, part circumstance, but I’ll toot our own horn, they did a really damn good job,” Wierenga said.
Among the high-profile cases this year was a $133,500 fine levied against lobbyist Kevin Sloat, who gave improper contributions and gifts – like cigars and wine – to politicians, including some in Orange County.
That followed a record $1 million fine levied in 2013 against two nonprofits connected to the conservative Koch brothers empire.
Finally, new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, AB 800, has also allowed the FPPC to compel disclosures from campaign committees during elections and gives the agency the power to audit committees before the end of election season, according to the report. Previously, the FPPC had to wait until after the general election to perform an audit.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Jay Wierenga. We regret the error.