SACRAMENTO — In an unusual move, the author of a bill that would exempt candidates from being held personally liable for payment of certain campaign debts asked Gov. Pete Wilson on Friday to veto the proposal.
Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) said in a letter that he made the extraordinary request because of "questions and controversy that have arisen over the timing" of the legislation.
"We intend to honor the author's request," said Dan Schnur, Wilson's communications director.
The bill, hastily created and passed during the hectic final two days of the legislative session last month, was opposed by the political watchdog lobby California Common Cause, which previously urged Wilson to veto it.
Common Cause charged that the measure appeared to be written to assist Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier) in his court fight against paying a $102,500 award tentatively won by Dutra Communications of Sacramento, a campaign company that helped him win election in 1990.
Johnson, a close friend of Hill, has insisted that he knew nothing of the Hill case when he and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) pushed the bill shortly before the Legislature adjourned. Hill did not vote on it.
Johnson, who had previously encouraged Wilson to sign the measure, has described the bill as merely clarifying existing law. Under the bill, a candidate would be held personally responsible for payment of campaign debts only when the office seeker had agreed in advance to such an arrangement.
Johnson maintains it is unfair to put an office seeker at risk of personal bankruptcy for debts that may have been incurred by campaign operatives without the candidate's knowledge or approval. He says this could have a chilling effect on potential candidates.
But Common Cause charged that the bill would enable candidates to walk away from campaign debts with impunity. "If a candidate is not responsible for unpaid bills, who is?" the organization asked.
In asking Wilson for the veto, Johnson also defused a potential political problem that an Assembly Republican attorney, Greg Turner, had warned about as the bill came up for a final floor vote.
In an unusually blunt written analysis, Turner alerted his GOP superiors to potential adverse political ramifications "if the public perceives this measure as a last-minute, behind-the-scenes effort to inappropriately protect politicians from liability for debts" of their fund-raising committees.
He said citizens may view the bill "as another example of the Legislature protecting itself, giving its members treatment different from that given to every other member of the state." He also challenged the need for the legislation.
When Johnson complained about the analysis, the three-page document was abruptly withdrawn, rewritten and condensed into a single-page summary that eliminated the political observations. Turner refused to discuss the issue, but Johnson denied this week that he applied pressure to eliminate the political commentary.
"I thought he (Turner) didn't understand the way in which campaigns actually operate," Johnson said.
Last year, Dutra Communications won preliminary Superior Court approval of a $102,500 civil award for alleged non-payment of advertising and public relations services provided to Hill's election campaign. The action directed an attachment against Hill's personal assets, which he has appealed.