Californians to Watch in 2013: Ann Ravel wants stronger campaign disclosure laws

12/29/2012 12:00 AM

10/22/2014 1:40 PM

Ann Ravel recalled recently what many people thought of her last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her chairwoman of the commission overseeing campaign finance and ethics rules in California.

The Fair Political Practices Commission had become increasingly aggressive under Ravel's predecessor, Dan Schnur, and Ravel, who worked for decades in local government, suggested it was unfairly harsh in its oversight of many local officials.

"They all thought I was a wimp," Ravel said, "that I wasn't going to do anything."

Last month, Ravel made herself a central figure in California's initiative campaigns, waging a legal battle to identify the source of an $11 million donation from a secretive Arizona group to a committee opposing Brown's measure to raise taxes and supporting a controversial campaign finance measure.

Buoyed by publicity around that effort, Ravel plans to push for major changes to the nearly 40-year-old Political Reform Act next year.

She said she wants legislation to expand disclosure requirements and her agency's power to enforce them, including language clarifying what constitutes coordination between campaign committees that are prohibited by law from interacting.

"If one thing has been clear about this whole Arizona incident," the 63-year-old Democrat told a crowd at the University of California Center Sacramento after the election, it's that "suddenly the FPPC is popular with the Legislature."

Ravel's battle with the Arizona group Americans for Responsible Leadership involved what is believed to be the largest anonymous donation ever in a California statewide election. It culminated one day before Election Day, when the nonprofit, facing a California Supreme Court order, disclosed as the source of its contributions two other out-of-state nonprofit groups whose backers remain unknown.

Robert Stern, who co-authored California's Political Reform Act, said Ravel's pursuit of the case was a major accomplishment.

Critics said Ravel acted as an arm of the Brown administration. The governor used publicity around the contribution to rail against it in the campaign for his tax measure, which ultimately passed.

Ronald Rotunda, a Fair Political Practices Commission member, said he does not defend the Arizona group's donation but that Ravel's handling of the case amounted to "self-aggrandizement."

"I think that she perhaps was affected by the favorable publicity for her," said Rotunda, a Republican. "We are supposed to be enforcing the law, and we are not supposed to be cheerleading."

Ravel said the criticism is unfair.

"I never had a conversation with the governor about this issue at all," she said. "I understand that the governor was able to seize on this as a talking point relating to the campaign, but it was never the intention of either me or the staff here, the enforcement staff that was working on this, to have any impact whatsoever on the campaign. It was to do our statutory obligation."

Altering the Political Reform Act would require a two-thirds supermajority in a Legislature often unwilling to further regulate its own political activity. Democrats have that advantage, but Ravel said she expects bipartisan support.

The FPPC last year sponsored Assembly Bill 481, which sought to tighten disclosure rules for independent expenditure committees and passed with bipartisan support.

Ravel said she also plans next year to greatly expand the commission's website, providing financial disclosure statements online for all elected officials, statewide.

Ravel said she is reviewing a variety of proposals to change the Political Reform Act, and Stern said it is "too early to tell" how significant any proposal she endorses might be.

"The act is now almost 40 years old, so clearly it always needs examining and updating," Stern said. "The problem, of course, is going to be, will the Legislature want to give her more enforcement and more disclosure? That's why there was an initiative 40 years ago, because the Legislature didn't want to do it."

ANN RAVEL

Age: 63

Title: Chairwoman, California Fair Political Practices Commission

Résumé highlight: Fought in court to identify donors behind an $11 million contribution from a secretive Arizona nonprofit to a committee involved in California's initiative campaigns – thought to be the largest anonymous donation in a California statewide election.

Chief goal in 2013: Push for legislation to change the Political Reform Act to strengthen financial disclosure requirements.

Biggest challenge in 2013: Proposing legislation that is acceptable to lawmakers, and that balances campaign disclosure rules with constitutionally protected speech.

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