The Quiet Influence of Independent Expenditures

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It seems like California's official campaign finance watchdog is barking a little louder these days about the role of money in politics. And its top target: the murky world of interest groups who ostensibly operate independently of the campaigns run by candidates for office.

The Fair Political Practices Commission recently began a new effort to shine light on the millions of dollars in "independent expenditures" spent in support or opposition of various candidates. IEs, as they're known to politicos, gained special prominence after the passage of Proposition 34 in 2000. The ballot measure was marketed as a way to dampen the influence of money in politics. But it seems to have mostly been a measure cleverly crafted by legislative leaders to change the flow of cash from one path to another that's not as transparent... and one where contributions can be made in unlimited amounts, as long as the committee in question is legally independent of any candidate.

The FPPC recently launched a page on its website devoted to tracking IE money in the 2008 campaigns. This morning, the agency released a detailed and fascinating look at who's been behind the most expensive IE efforts since Prop 34 took effect.

The report, "Independent Expenditures: The Giant Gorilla In Campaign Finance," finds that over the past six years IE committees have made a whopping $88 million in political contributions. Of that amount, a full $61.7 million was above and beyond the contribution limits outlined in Prop 34. Again, it's not that the contributions were illegal; rather, that they were made through a legal but not-so-visible loophole in the law.

The new report can be found online here. Some of the more juicy morsels worth pondering:

* The #1 IE since Prop 34 took effect was in support of Democrat Phil Angelides in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. That IE committee, known as "Californians For a Better Government," spent more than $9.8 million to help Angelides defeat rival Democrat Steve Westly. The FPPC report says more than 80% of that money came from Sacramento developers Angelo Tsakopoulos and his daughter, Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis. Angelides was a one-time business partner of the elder Tsakopoulos.

* The report reaffirms what most political watchers already knew-- that much of the money funneled into IE campaigns has come from familiar political players: labor unions, business groups, and Indian tribes with casinos.

* The FPPC identifies seven politicians it calls "Million Dollar Babies," meaning that at least $1 million was spent in support of that candidate's campaign. The list, in order of IEs spent on their behalf: Phil Angelides in his losing 2006 race for governor ($19.6 million); Democrat John Chiang in his winning 2006 race for controller ($3.5 million); Republican Tony Strickland in his losing 2006 race for controller ($2.1 million); Democrat Lou Correa in his winning 2006 race for the state Senate ($2.4 million); Democrat John Dutra in his losing 2006 race for the state Senate ($1.8 million); Democrat Gloria Negrete-McLeod in her winning 2006 race for the state Senate ($1.2 million); and Democrat Nicole Parra in her winning 2006 race for the state Assembly ($1.2 million).

The FPPC's new chairman, former legislator Ross Johnson, is no stranger to the world of campaign finance-- having worked on a number of contributions rules and regulations for the better part of the last two decades. His new reign as the top man at the FPPC is shaping up to be one of the most activist eras at the agency in recent memory.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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