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Los Angeles Times Interview

Karen Getman

Money, Politics and California's Long Struggle to Keep Them Apart

September 17, 2000|Cynthia H. Craft | Cynthia H. Craft is editor of the California Journal, a nonpartisan publication on government and politics

At a quarter-century old, California's Political Reform Act has grown flabby, thanks to the extra padding of some 200 amendments that lawmakers and voters have applied to it over the years. Many elected officials, particularly those irked by the volume of paperwork they must fill out to comply with the act, believe the law should be slimmed down.

Enter Karen A. Getman. A Bay Area attorney who navigated nooks of the act for her political clients, Getman has firsthand experience with its frustrating side. At one point, she quit taking new clients with conflict-of-interest questions because the rules had grown so complicated. Today, she is chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state agency established to administer and enforce the 1974 voter-approved initiative known as Proposition 9.

An appointee of Gov. Gray Davis, Getman is keenly aware of the balancing act she must perform. While streamlining forms and disclosure requirements, she must ensure that no corners are cut from the law's original Watergate-era mission to guard against political quid pro quos, personal financial gain and money laundering. Getman says she is spearheading efforts to simplify the act in order to encourage participation in the political process, not to make life cushy for her former colleagues at political law firms and their client-candidates. She insists it is the little guy contemplating a run for local office who will benefit from an effort to trim the act's complex paperwork requirements, said to remind some of Internal Revenue Service red tape.

Since her arrival, Getman has handled two of the highest-profile cases to come before the commission in recent years. One, the Chuck Quackenbush scandal, in which the former insurance commissioner used his clout as an elected official to put the squeeze on companies he regulated, represented an ethicist's worst nightmare. At the request of the state attorney general's office, the FPPC suspended its Quackenbush inquiry so as not to interfere with the attorney general's probe. The second case, still alive in the courts, involved Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who challenged the conflict-of-interest restrictions of the political reform act, the very law he championed in 1974.

Getman's pet project has been to educate the public about what the FPPC does and how it can facilitate the public's wider involvement in government. She sought and won from the governor and Legislature an extra allocation in the commission's budget for this purpose.

A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Getman, 43, began her legal career in Washington as a staff attorney for the Women's Legal Defense Fund. She grew up in a central Connecticut town, the daughter of a utility-company worker and an accounting clerk, in a household where dinner-table discussions about politics sparked a lasting interest in the topic. She majored in women's studies and, while in law school, served as editor of the Harvard Women's Law Journal. She is a single mother of two children, ages 10 and 8. On a recent afternoon, Getman talked in her Sacramento office about her mission as head of the FPPC.

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Question: How has the FPPC evolved over its 25 years?

Answer: Its mission and purpose, set in statute by Proposition 9, haven't changed in 25 years. . . . What has changed is the implementation of its principles. Like any organization, we've had pendulum swings toward different aspects of our goal. Right now, the emphasis is on getting back to when the agency first came into being and the act was passed. At the heart of it is the campaign-finance disclosure statement, with its very strong intent that we force politicians and people in public office to tell the public what's happening with their campaign money--where it's coming from and whether some sort of financial interest will be influencing their actions in office. We are looking at what the people thought they were getting when they voted in Proposition 9. We are trying to balance out some of those pendulum swings and return to the law's core statement of purposes.

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Q: How many regulations are there?

A: The Political Reform Act has been amended [so many times] I don't know if it's even possible to give an accurate count of the regulations that have been added. In some ways, that's necessary because we are regulating 1st-Amendment-protected activity, so you have to be precise. But it has also been legislative changes, initiative changes, tiny tweakings here and there that have resulted in enormous changes to reporting schedules.

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Q: Why is it important to simplify conflict-of-interest rules?

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