The state's Fair Political Practices Commission, responsible for making sure that politicians disclose their finances, is considering a proposal to license paid campaign consultants, an unprecedented step that the agency's chairman says would give it indirect control over the content of political literature and advertising.
Commission Chairman Dan Stanford acknowledges that licensing consultants is a "bold new frontier," but he says it is the only way the agency can combat misleading advertising, deceptive political mail and the general mudslinging that mars some state and local races.
The panel has scheduled its first public hearing on the matter for Tuesday in Los Angeles. But some consultants and political experts are already raising objections that the scheme is unrealistic and sure to run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.
'A Very Scary Thing'
"It has the potential of being a very scary thing," said Michael Berman, partner in the Berman and D'Agostino consulting firm of Los Angeles. "Political content is subjective, and it is the basis of our right to free speech in America.
"To have any government body--other than the courts in the normal libel or slander actions--sit as regulator of content in any sense is a tremendously . . . Orwellian thing."
Yet Joseph Cerrell, a nationally known consultant from Los Angeles and president of the American Assn. of Political Consultants, said he would not oppose the move because "to become a political consultant all you have to say is 'I'm now in the business.' "
And Stanford says the state already licenses a variety of professions, including attorneys, teachers, doctors, announcers for professional karate matches, manufacturers of oleo and brake fluid, and even people who collect wild burros or feed garbage to pigs.
"You can't practice law, cut hair or catch fish without a license," Stanford said. "Yet you can, without even opening an office or having a business card, ruin somebody's reputation, destroy their family and destroy their livelihood with no existing, sufficient remedy, fear or retribution."
Stanford said current commission guidelines leave little recourse for the agency against consultants who are unethical or cause their clients to break guidelines. Within the last year, the commission received the power from the Legislature to fine consultants for "aiding and abetting" their clients' failure to disclose campaign financial matters.
But the new proposal, which Stanford says he will send to the Legislature in early April, would go substantially beyond that. The commission would require consultants--roughly defined as someone paid to develop strategy, mailings and direct a campaign--to register with the agency and pay a nominal fee. Under the proposal, the state would not require tests or educational standards for consultants, as it does for other professions.
Three Areas Targeted
Once the consultant is licensed, according to Stanford, the panel would regulate three areas:
- Financial disclosure. Consultants would be required to list their financial interests, as are elected officials. This would allow the public to discover, for example, that a consultant had more than a professional interest in a local rent control ordinance if he or she also owned several apartment houses. The requirement would also show how much money consultants earn. Disclosure may also be extended to include investors in a consulting firm, one possible way to prevent the use of paid campaign consultants as a funnel for illegal contributions, as is alleged in the current legal case against San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock.
- Business practices. The commission would act as a protection agency for politicians, guarding them against poor performance or unreasonable fees by consultants.
- Ethics. The most controversial area, this deals with how consultants conduct campaigns and what they say in political literature.
Although the agency would not have the power to censor political ads or mailers, Stanford says his agency hopes its power to revoke consulting licenses would serve as a deterrent to campaign lies and misstatements. This back-door approach is necessary, he said, because the courts, citing First Amendment protection of political speech, are reluctant to rule on libel cases arising from political races.
"Because of this proposal, those professionals who engage in this business will clean up their own act," Stanford said.
However, determining exactly what is fair in politics is not easy, counters San Diego consultant David Lewis.
Lewis gave as an example a candidate who uses a picture showing him shaking hands with a popular elected official. Even if the popular politician has refused to endorse the candidate, there is the implication of approval in the literature.
'What Have They Done?'