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The State

Panel Accused of Designing Law Loophole

Politics: FPPC chided for ruling on Prop. 34 ban of big donations. Its chief says that incumbents don't have to exploit it.

June 01, 2002|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The watchdog state commission that exempted state legislators from the new law that outlaws large campaign contributions was accused Friday of deliberately creating a loophole rather than pursuing alternative solutions.

In an angry letter, senior Republican Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), a co-author of the successful Proposition 34 ballot initiative in 2000, charged that the state Fair Political Practices Commission had become a "toothless watchdog" which "subverted" the law's intention of limiting big contributions.

Commission chairwoman Karen Getman fired back, insisting the fault was not with the commission, but with lawmakers who had taken advantage of the commission's ruling.

"No one is obligated to fund-raise just because we say it's legal to do so," Getman said in a letter. "Every incumbent legislator not running for office--yourself included--can cease fund-raising now. You can set the example."

At issue was a commission ruling that enabled incumbent legislators' existing campaign committees to continue raising large contributions in unlimited amounts, but said their challengers must obey the limits imposed by Proposition 34.

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) and Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) used the loophole to raise nearly $3 million in the last nine months.

The commission decision held that political committees operating before Jan. 1, 2001, when Proposition 34 took effect, did not have to observe a $3,000 limit on donations because the new law could not be applied to them retroactively. The measure's limits, however, do apply to legislative candidates in elections since then, the commission ruled.

In an effort to balance the decision, the five-member commission prohibited lawmakers from spending their funds for election purposes, such as transferring money to other candidates in excess of $3,000 per election, or $6,000 for a primary and general election.

It did allow them to donate the money to political parties or charities.

But campaign-reform advocates charged that the commission turned the law upside-down in favor of incumbents and wealthy special interests who seek to influence legislative decisions with generous donations. Getman, an attorney who had specialized in political-reform law before Davis appointed her to the commission, defended the decision as proper, given the complex task of trying to marry a new law that imposed radical limits and the old law, which allowed donations without end.

In his letter, Johnson, first elected to the Legislature in 1978, told Getman her explanation suggested the commission had "no choice but to adopt regulations allowing unlimited contributions."

He said this was "nonsense."

"The plain reading of Proposition 34 is clear: imposition of contribution limits across the board, without exception," he claimed.

Rather than exempting incumbents from the limits of Proposition 34, Johnson said, the commission could have sought other options, including asking the Legislature for "modification or clarification" of the law, or supporting a bill that was introduced to deal with the expenditure of campaign funds by termed-out lawmakers.

"Why don't you make suggestions for corrective legislation today?" Johnson asked.

He said the commission "provided a loophole big enough to drive a Mack truck through."

In her response to Johnson, Getman chided him for failing to take a stand on the issue until this week, when The Times reported that legislative leaders and more than a dozen other lawmakers had taken contributions that exceeded the limits of Proposition 34.

(Johnson was not among them.)

However, Republican leaders released a letter to Davis and Getman, written July 11 by Senate GOP floor leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga and Assembly GOP leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks.

In it, they protested any decision that would allow a return to unlimited contributions by incumbents.

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