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California’s Top Political Watchdog Leaves With a Bang

| October 25, 2013
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As California’s top political watchdog, Ann Ravel has racked up several impressive victories. And as Ravel steps down this week as chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, she’s going out with a bang. In the past few weeks Ravel has:

  • Spearheaded formation of the SUN Center, a national online clearinghouse for campaign-finance disclosure forms, campaign investigations and more.
  • Celebrated Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature on two pieces of FPPC-sponsored legislation: one establishing the first-ever statewide electronic disclosure system for state, local and federal elected officials, the other expanding the agency’s authority to provide conflict-of-interest advice and enforcement.
  • Leveled a $40,500 fine against three well-known Sacramento political operatives for failing to register as lobbyists.

The final feather in Ravel’s cap came Thursday, when the FPPC announced a record $1 million fine against two out-of-state nonprofit organizations that funneled $15 million into California just before the 2012 election.

Ravel’s reaction to that last-minute contribution defined her tenure at the FPPC. When a shadowy Arizona group made that $11 million political contribution to defeat Gov. Brown’s tax-hike ballot measure Prop. 30 and to help defeat the anti-labor Prop. 32, Ravel threw the FPPC’s investigative powers into overdrive.

She went all the way to the state Supreme Court to find out who was the true source of the money. Days before the election the justices unanimously ordered the group Americans for Responsible Leadership to reveal the source of its funds. (The group complied, but its disclosure only revealed two other organizations that had the money before it was funneled to California, leaving many questions unanswered.) Americans for Responsible Leadership and the Center to Protect Patients’ Rights, another group with links to conservative activists Charles and David Koch, will pay the $1 million fine. The FPPC is also trying to force the recipients of the illegal cash to turn it over to the state, as required by California law.

The settlement is the largest for a case of campaign money laundering in California elections history.

With that piece of business wrapped up, Ravel heads for Washington, D.C., where she’ll serve as President Obama’s newest Democratic appointee to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

“I’m sorry she’s leaving,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “What she’s created shows real initiative.” Alexander called the nationwide SUN Center “fantastic and innovative,” adding, “I don’t know of any state or local disclosure agency executive who’s done anything like that before. I’m hoping she’ll be able to continue being involved in this at the FEC.”

Compared to California, where the Fair Political Practices Commission is dominated by Democratic appointees (not to mention Democratic dominance of the Legislature and every statewide office including governor), Ravel might not need her running shoes. In fact, critics say the FEC has been standing in place for years, pretty much gridlocked by design, with three Democrats, three Republicans and four votes needed for any FEC action.

Ravel says she hopes that her confirmation, along with a new Republican nominee, by the unanimous consent of the U.S. Senate signals a new era of cooperation at the FEC. Others are less sanguine about that. But Ravel will need that kind of optimism to avoid getting ground down by the partisan mill of D.C. politics.

Also on KQED’s News Fix: FPPC Levies Fines in Epic Campaign Money-Laundering Case

KQED’s Scott Shafer spoke with Ann Ravel for KQED NEWSROOM, a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Tune in to KQED Public Television 9 on Friday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m. to see the entire program. Listen to a rebroadcast at KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM on Sunday, Oct. 27, at 6 p.m.

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