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Official Says He Is 'Eviscerator' of Prop. 208

Government: Video shows the state's top political watchdog telling lobbyists that parts of the reform law are unconstitutional. He suggests a way around some provisions.


SACRAMENTO — Using apologetic tones, California's top watchdog over political corruption told an audience of several hundred lobbyists that he has no choice but to carry out a voter-approved initiative aimed at cleaning up politics.

Ravi Mehta, chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, commiserated with the lobbyists about Proposition 208, approved by a wide margin in November, and suggested that although his agency must defend the initiative in court, parts of it may be unconstitutional.

"It is frustrating. Unfortunately, we're all going to live with it," Mehta told the lobbyists gathered Friday at the Sacramento Convention Center for a daylong ethics training seminar, which by law they must attend. A videotape of the speech was obtained Monday.

Noting that his agency must interpret the initiative and apply it to politicians and lobbyists, Mehta said with apparent pride that he is becoming known as the "eviscerator" of Proposition 208.

Mehta, an appointee of Gov. Pete Wilson, told the lobbyists that if they had doubts about how the initiative's complexities apply to them, they should write to the commission for advice.

So long as the commission issues an advisory letter siding with the lobbyist, Mehta said, that lobbyist would get "immunity" from prosecution for actions covered by the letter, but "unfortunately" also would run the risk of seeing details about the issue appear in the newspapers.

"There may be areas where I may believe absolutely that this provision is absolutely unconstitutional," Mehta said. But, noting that his agency still must enforce the law until courts act, Mehta added: "Please forgive us if you believe something is unconstitutional and we have to enforce certain provisions."

Although Mehta received polite applause, several lobbyists were offended by his comments.

"The guy is supposed to be the chief enforcer of the law, and he is standing up there saying it's unconstitutional, and we can get you immunity," said Judith Bell, lobbyist for Consumers Union. "It's sort of like a cop saying, 'If you like to speed, here are the streets you can speed on, and here's a map telling you how to get there.' "

"He sounded gleeful about rewriting and narrowing the initiative," added Beth Capell, who represents labor and health groups. "The last time I checked, the administration is supposed to enforce the law."

Proposition 208 imposes strict limits on political fund-raising and spending, and seeks to add restrictions on lobbyists. Various lobbying groups and the state Democratic and Republican parties have sued to have the measure declared unconstitutional.

The Fair Political Practices Commission is one of the named defendants and is responsible for defending it in court.

Former Secretary of State Tony Miller, one of the initiative's main proponents, said Mehta's suggestion that parts of the measure may be unconstitutional "compromises the legal defense" of the initiative.

"He should be outspoken in terms of defending 208, not destroying 208," said Miller, who backed the initiative along with California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. "I really question whether he has forfeited the right to be FPPC chair."


On Monday, Mehta stood by his comments. He said the initiative was poorly written and that the commission is struggling to interpret it.

In his speech, Mehta also derided a provision of the 1974 Political Reform Act, which created the Fair Political Practices Commission. The 1974 law sought to limit the amounts of money that lobbyists spend wining and dining government officials to $10 per month.

"We're stuck with that $10 limit," Mehta said.

Mehta, a lawyer, pointed out that courts have struck down some aspects of past reforms and suggested that Proposition 208 faces a similar fate.

"What has happened, ironically," Mehta said, "is the very same people that would fight to desecrate the flag of the United States in the name of the 1st Amendment and the right to free speech are also the very same ones who would want to limit your 1st Amendment right to make a political contribution."

Mehta attacked what he said were problems in the drafting of Proposition 208 and said the commission is struggling to interpret it.

Until the federal courts rule on Proposition 208, the five-member FPPC will continue to interpret its provisions, Mehta said.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger has been called the Terminator," Mehta said in the tape. "I've been called the eviscerator. I've eviscerated every portion of Proposition 208. . . . And I don't think we're doing that necessarily because any one of the commission members dislikes Proposition 208. . . . I think it's because the commission believes that certain portions of the initiative are just poorly written."

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