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California ethics czar urges disclosure of payments to Web pundits

Ann Ravel, the California Fair Political Practices Commission head, fears political groups are secretly funding bloggers to promote or attack candidates. But her proposal worries free-speech advocates.

April 20, 2012|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
  • A recently created anonymous website draws attention to criminal charges pending against L.A. Councilman Richard Alarcon. Above, Alarcon addresses the budget and finance committee last year at City Hall.
A recently created anonymous website draws attention to criminal charges… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Alarmed that political groups are secretly funding bloggers to promote or attack candidates, the state's ethics czar proposed Thursday that Web-based pundits disclose such payments.

Voters are increasingly relying on bloggers and websites for information on political issues and have a right to know if an interested party is paying to plant messages, said Ann Ravel, who heads California's political watchdog agency.

"In order for people to really know whether they can have faith and trust in the independence of recommendations they are receiving, they have to be aware" of any payments, she said.

Currently, campaigns are required to report to the state any payments they make to Internet sites. But they can hide such a connection by writing checks to consultants who then pay the blogger. Also, disclosure of payments need not be made on the blog or website where a reader can easily see it.

Ravel wants any blogger who touts a position on a candidate or ballot measure to disclose on the blog any payments from those involved in the political contest. That would include the many anonymous bloggers and website operators, she said.

One anonymous website created recently draws attention to criminal charges pending against Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, a candidate for the state Assembly. Ravel, chairwoman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, said her proposal would apply to that site.

Details are still being worked out, but her recommendation, made at a Sacramento conference on campaign finance, immediately drew questions from free-speech advocates.

"This makes me nervous,'' said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for Web users, including bloggers. "People having the right to speak anonymously is important, so I look carefully at anything that might limit the ability of people to speak anonymously.''

FPPC member Ronald Rotunda, a law professor, said there is a danger that any new regulations could violate free-speech rights if they are applied to bloggers but not to similar media.

"You have 1st Amendment problems if you are discriminating,'' he said, adding that he wanted to see the details of Ravel's proposal.

The commission considered the issue in 2010, before Ravel was appointed, and decided then that there was not enough evidence of a problem to warrant regulation.

Ravel said Thursday that bloggers whom she would not identify have admitted to the commission that they have received undisclosed funding from partisan interests. "I suspect it is fairly common,'' she said.

She plans initially to ask the panel for an advisory measure that requests bloggers and website operators to comply but said it would probably end up being required.

In 2009, Chip Hanlon, chief executive of the blog site Red County, announced that one of its writers had been terminated after it was discovered that the writer was taking payments from a consultant for gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner "for favorable coverage."

Blogger Joe Matthews said at the conference that after he posted some negative items on gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in 2010, her campaign offered to buy advertising on his site.

Ravel said it was not her intent that bloggers disclose market-rate payments for advertising from political sources. Her proposal is modeled after guidelines issued in 2009 by the Federal Trade Commission that says bloggers who endorse a product must disclose their material connections with the product's seller.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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