SACRAMENTO — Since a shift in enforcement policy last year, more than a dozen elected state officials, including leaders of the Legislature and Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, have been quietly let off the hook for some violations of campaign finance laws, receiving warning letters instead of publicly announced fines.
After he took the reins of the Fair Political Practices Commission last year, former legislator Ross Johnson said he was shifting the agency's focus to have prosecutors settle with warnings cases that they deemed minor and inadvertent. The shift enables the agency to concentrate on more serious violators, Johnson said.
That makes sense to some government experts, including John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
"If you spend all your time going after minnows," Pitney said, "you won't be able to go after any whales."
But some watchdog groups see reasons for concern. For one, it's harder for the public to learn about violations when they are resolved with warnings.
The FPPC posts on its monthly agendas the details of cases resulting in fines, which require commissioners' approval. The postings enable members of the public to learn who was fined, for how much and for what violation. But most cases now result in warning letters that are routinely not made public.
The Times submitted a Public Records Act request for copies of warning letters issued since the policy took effect, but more than a month elapsed before the agency provided them all.
Warnings were sent to campaign committees for Senate Minority Leader Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto) and Senate President Pro Tem-elect Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), as well as a group with ties to Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland).
The attorney general's campaign committee received a warning letter for failing to disclose details of payments to subcontractors.
Cogdill received a warning letter for seven violations, including failing to disclose late contributions, neglecting to electronically report some fundraising and accepting contributions that exceeded state limits. Yet the FPPC considered his case appropriate for a warning under the new policy, and Chief Investigator Sue Straine notified Cogdill that he would not be penalized.
"Neither you nor your committee has a history of violating the Political Reform Act," she wrote.
By contrast, under the old policy, Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) was fined $3,000 in 2006 for four violations, including failing to report late contributions and accepting a donation that exceeded state limits.
The Voter Registration and Education Fund, a campaign committee supporting Perata's causes, failed to file one of the campaign finance disclosure statements required just before an election. Steinberg's committee failed to disclose payments to some who worked on a radio campaign.
In each case, the letters said the violations "likely did not result in significant public harm."
That is not the point, said Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.
"By giving elected officials warning letters without the public knowing, it tends to undermine the deterrent effect you have when you tell the public who is violating the law," Westen said.
Johnson, the FPPC chairman, said that Westen raised "a legitimate point" and that he would be open to providing a public-notification mechanism for the warnings.
"It may be we will want to take a look at regular reports to the commission that would be part of the public record. Our intent is not to hide anything," Johnson said.
In the year after Johnson took over, the commission levied fines in 159 cases totaling $583,474 -- about half as much as the previous year. The number of warning letters increased from 30 to 294 that year.
Some critics of the policy shift noted that legislators help set the agency's budget and questioned whether the change may have more to do with currying favor than with a desire to concentrate on major violations. Legislators are expected in the next month to approve a budget proposal that would fully restore funding to the FPPC after the governor sought to cut money for agency programs by 10%.
"That seems a conflict of interest that is disconcerting," said Jim Mangia, founder of the Coalition for Political Reform.
Johnson firmly denied the policy change was an attempt to win a more favorable budget.
"The purpose very simply was to clear the decks so we could concentrate on the worst offenders, those who deliberately chose to break the law," Johnson said.
The vast majority of warning letters went to state bureaucrats, political aides, local commissioners and other low-level government officials for a small number of arguably minor violations, including the late filing of economic-interest statements.