California's political watchdog agency, crippled by having only three investigators, is wading through a backlog of 737 cases of alleged campaign misdeeds while wrestling to craft a new generation of voter-authorized campaign reforms.
Some critics say the Fair Political Practices Commission has become the place where complaints go to die.
"The FPPC has become nothing more than a record-keeping bureaucracy," said Los Angeles political consultant Harvey Englander, who has filed complaints against opposing candidates. "Their investigations are too little and too late."
The five-member panel oversees 60 employees with jurisdiction over state campaign disclosure laws that apply to thousands of state and local candidates, officeholders and political committees.
Once heralded as a trend-setting watchdog in the months following the Watergate scandal, the commission is facing unprecedented challenges.
Five positions in its 22-member enforcement division are vacant, including four of seven investigators and an attorney. Its $6-million budget next year could be cut by $95,000, a much smaller cut than the nearly $1 million that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had proposed last year until government groups protested.
As of last month, 676 cases from previous years remained unresolved. Fines in another 61 cases remain uncollected.
In the last five years, the agency received nearly 4,500 complaints, which will be dropped if not addressed within five years of the election in which the alleged violation occurred. Agency officials could not say how many cases were up against the deadline, but its actions frequently address violations from years earlier.
Last month, for instance, the commission fined Westminster Councilman Andy Quach $24,400 for improperly handling cash donations and failing to keep campaign records during his unsuccessful November 2000 council race. Even as state investigators pursued complaints about his campaign tactics, he stood for two more elections, winning a council seat in 2002 but losing his mayoral bid last year.
He settled the case for a smaller fine.
Shirley L. Grindle, Orange County's veteran campaign watchdog, has filed four complaints that remain unresolved, one of which dates to the November 2000 election. She said candidates and committees often ignored campaign laws.
"They know the district attorney won't do anything and the FPPC is backlogged," she said. "I'm furious, because you see these guys repeating the same violations. The violators know they aren't going to have to pay the piper."
Without timely enforcement, campaign finance laws become meaningless, agreed Larry Noble, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington and a former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.
Noble defended similar complaints against the FEC before he left in 2000, blaming its backlog on lack of resources. But the complaints are justified, he said. "These delays are very serious," he said. "Without timely enforcement, no one takes the law seriously."
Commission officials said they were actively recruiting investigators. They point to staffing cuts -- from 13 investigators and an enforcement staff of 33 in 1989 -- even as the commission's collections have grown.
Last year, the agency collected $1.4 million in fines from 168 cases, compared with $182,250 in fines from 35 cases in 1989 -- evidence of more complaints being filed in recent years. The money goes into the state's general fund.
"We wish our staff was larger so that we could both investigate more of the complaints brought to us and reduce the time needed to investigate cases," FPPC spokesman Jon Matthews said.
State Sen. John Campbell (R-Irvine) said he was surprised by the agency's backlog. Rather than slashing the FPPC's budget, most lawmakers tread lightly for fear of being labeled an enemy of good government.
"I'm willing to cut just about anything, and I've never proposed cutting the FPPC," said Campbell, who is on the Senate Budget and Fiscal Oversight Committee.
Like other state agencies, the FPPC has been hit with budget reductions in the last five years as the governor and Legislature have grappled with billion-dollar budget shortfalls. The agency's budget was $6.6 million in 2000-01, then reduced to $6.1 million in 2004-05. But language in the Political Reform Act guarantees minimum funding -- a precaution acknowledging that politicians might get piqued at their watchdogs.
The FPPC is still among the most aggressive state political enforcement agencies in the country, said Robert Stern, co-author of the 1974 Political Reform Act that created the commission.
It's hard to judge the severity of the backlog, he said, without knowing what type of cases they are -- something the commission declined to characterize. Larger cases involving state lawmakers are more likely to be investigated sooner before local and less serious allegations, he said.