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Loophole in campaign rules cited

State ethics panel urges new way to better identify donors behind funding beyond contribution limits.

May 21, 2008|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Money spent in California elections outside voter-approved contribution limits is giving special interests undue influence, requiring new rules that better identify who is behind such efforts, the state's ethics agency said Tuesday.

Since 2001, such expenditures in state political campaigns have totaled $88 million, a sum not subject to fundraising limits, according to a study released Tuesday by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

"The emergence of independent expenditures has thwarted the will of the people, dramatically undermined California's campaign finance laws and doubtlessly influenced the outcome of numerous statewide and legislative elections," the 66-page study concluded.

The agency proposed banning independent expenditure campaigns unless the names of the treasurer and principal officers of the campaign committees, and their economic interests, are disclosed.

California voters approved rules that limit political contributions made to a candidate in a campaign to $3,600 for legislative races and $24,000 in the governor's race.

There is no limit on what an individual, company or group can spend to influence an election, including broadcasting political television ads and sending out mailers, as long as the effort is not coordinated with a candidate.

The study found that independent expenditure committees spent tens of millions of dollars more than they would have been allowed if they had donated directly to the candidate and been forced to abide by contribution limits.

A committee called Californians for a Better Government, which was made up of development interests and teachers and firefighters unions, spent $9.8 million in the 2006 gubernatorial primary election to support one candidate, Phil Angelides. The amount spent was 442 times what it could have contributed directly to Angelides under campaign finance laws, the study found.

"I doubt California voters expected such an orgy of special-interest spending when they clamped the lid on campaign contributions eight years ago," said Ross Johnson, chairman of the state commission.

Top donors to independent efforts, according to the commission, were, in order: the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, the California Teachers Assn., the State Council of Service Employees Political Committee and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

The courts have ruled against efforts to restrict the size of independent expenditures, viewing them as a free-speech right, said Lance Olson, an attorney who advises several committees.

Olson took issue with the commission's assertion that current disclosure rules can obscure who is sponsoring and supporting independent expenditures.

"We've got a ton of disclosure," he said.

Still, the state commission's study recommends other ways to blunt the effects of independent campaigns, including a requirement that they be given "appropriate committee names" that identify the interests involved, and that a list of principal officers be made public.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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