SACRAMENTO — The agency responsible for enforcing campaign laws is unlikely to consider action against Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante any time soon for raising money in six- and seven-figure chunks for his gubernatorial run, officials said Wednesday -- even though state law generally caps each donation at $21,200.
Liane Randolph, chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, told reporters at a commission meeting Wednesday that the watchdog agency probably will not act on Bustamante's fund-raising before the Oct. 7 recall election. Officials said the commission may never take action.
"Every single election," Randolph said, "we get complaints right before the election, and the complainant always says, 'We want you to take action before the election.' Sometimes that is not always feasible. In fact, it is rarely feasible."
Randolph, appointed earlier this year by Gov. Gray Davis, noted that "anyone who files a complaint with this agency will tell you that cases take a long time."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Campaign laws -- In a Section A article Thursday about the Fair Political Practices Commission, former Gov. Pat Brown was mistakenly identified as a proponent of the Fair Political Practices Act. The article should have said that his son, Jerry Brown, then governor-elect, was an advocate for the measure.
"I don't know how long this matter would take," Randolph said. "But it is pretty unusual for us to take action based on something that happened eight days ago, nine days ago."
Bustamante is the one major Democratic officeholder who is running to replace Davis if voters recall him next month. The lieutenant governor began taking donations of $100,000 and more last week into an old campaign committee that is not covered by the $21,200 limit imposed by the voter-approved Proposition 34 of 2000.
A San Diego County Indian tribe upped the ante on Tuesday by announcing a $1.5-million donation to that committee. On Wednesday, the Alameda-based local of the Operating Engineers unions gave Bustamante's old committee $106,400.
There are no limits on what Bustamante can accept into his old committee. His chief strategist, Richie Ross, has said Bustamante hopes to raise as much as $4 million into that committee and use it for the current campaign. Bustamante's attorney, Lance Olson, who helped write Proposition 34, defends such a move as legal. Ross could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Bustamante campaign manager Lynn Montgomery said she was not surprised by Randolph's comments: "We didn't think there was any basis to file a lawsuit."
The five-member commission, seeking to clarify fund-raising rules in the recall campaign, issued a statement last week hinting that what Bustamante was planning might violate state law. "The commission has advised that state candidates may not solicit contributions into a pre-Proposition 34 committee for the purpose of using those funds in a post-Proposition 34 election," the statement said.
On Wednesday, however, Steven Russo, head of enforcement for the commission, described the release as "a broad statement as to what has and has not been said in the past." Russo also suggested that what Bustamante is contemplating may be legal.
"There are certainly arguments to be made on both sides as to what the provisions of the law are," Russo said. "The question we face is, what was the intent of the drafters of Proposition 34, and how does it apply to a specific set of facts."
Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), among the FPPC's most persistent critics, filed a complaint Tuesday urging that the commission take action against the lieutenant governor.
Upon being told of Randolph and Russo's remarks on Wednesday, Johnson said: "Sounds like a confession that they're a toothless watchdog. That may be good for the soul, but not for the body politic."
Johnson, who helped write Proposition 34, vowed to sue to prevent Bustamante from transferring the money into his gubernatorial account, if the commission fails to act.
Russo said the fact that a state senator filed a complaint will not force the FPPC to act more quickly. Noting that the commission receives 1,000 complaints a year, Russo said: "Does the public want us to say, 'Excuse me, everybody. We're going to ignore you now because we have this complaint.'?"
Until Wednesday, Russo and other commission officials said, the commission had never sued a candidate or ballot measure committee before an election. But the commission filed suit Wednesday against a nonprofit corporation controlled by Ward Connerly, to compel him to disclose donors who gave the entity $1.5 million in support of Proposition 54. That initiative on the Oct. 7 ballot would limit government's ability to gather racial and ethnic data.
Republicans raised the possibility that the Democrat-dominated FPPC was using a tougher standard against Republican Connerly than Bustamante, a Democrat.
But commission spokeswoman Sigrid Bathen noted that the investigation into Connerly's nonprofit organization began in July 2002.
The commission began looking into Bustamante's campaign financing plans only after it received Johnson's complaint.