Watchdog unleashed?

Critics and colleagues of Gov. Jerry Brown’s FPPC regulator say she is weakening oversight of politicians and lobbyists

California Fair Political Practices Commission chairwoman Ann Ravel.

California Fair Political Practices Commission chairwoman Ann Ravel.

Will Evans is a reporter for California Watch, the state’s largest investigative-reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at

Ann Ravel, Gov. Jerry Brown’s pick to lead the California Fair Political Practices Commission, has been on the job less than a year but is moving quickly and provoking strong reactions. Ravel’s supporters say she is boldly revamping ethics regulations, making them simpler to understand and follow. Her detractors—which include an outspoken fellow commissioner and the previous chairman—say she is weakening oversight of the watchdog agency by siding with the politicians and lobbyists she is supposed to regulate.

Ravel, who took the gavel in February, said she has focused the agency’s enforcement on major cases, like money laundering and conflicts of interest, instead of minor filing violations.

“I have done more to [investigate] much more egregious violations of the Political Reform Act than anyone before me,” she said. “What they did before were lots and lots of small violations, and I think you found people who didn’t have respect for what the FPPC was doing.”

Ravel previously worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and was the county counsel for Santa Clara County from 1998 to 2009. “My interest is to make the FPPC a really central player in the government and political structure of this state,” Ravel added. “I think most people saw it as a minor nuisance instead.”

Dan Schnur, who led the commission before Ravel, said she is steering the agency away from the aggressive stance he and his predecessor, Ross Johnson, took. Both Schnur and Johnson are Republicans who were appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ravel “seems to have decided that the interests of the political attorneys and lobbyists should take priority over those of the voters,” Schnur said.

Phillip Ung, policy advocate for the nonpartisan political watchdog group California Common Cause, agreed that Ravel has been less strict than Schnur on those she regulates.

“With Schnur, you had someone who was generally disgusted with the culture and the influence of special interests, and with Ravel, she seems more willing to work with the parties,” Ung said.

Ung said Common Cause also had “a real champion” in Roman Porter, the commission’s former executive director, who left over differences with Ravel.

Ravel said the commission cannot afford a new executive director because of the large payout Porter received for unused vacation time. Ravel said she had to take away staff perks, like cellphones and reimbursed parking. With only $12,000 more than rent and existing salaries for the rest of the fiscal year, Ravel said, “We are barely squeaking by.”

Porter said the budgetary problems cannot be blamed solely on his departure because the commission “has been historically underfunded for the responsibility that it has.”

Commissioner Ronald Rotunda accused Ravel of ramming through her agenda and dismantling ethics regulations. Rotunda is a Republican law professor appointed by Democratic state Controller John Chiang.

“If you think of all these campaign-disclosure rules as a kind of a wall protecting people from politicians who may not act in our best interests, I think she’s taking down this wall brick by brick,” Rotunda said.

Rotunda was incensed that Ravel refused to post online a strongly worded letter he wrote objecting to a staff memo on how to handle the fraud scandal involving political campaign treasurer Kinde Durkee. The staff counsel’s opinion held that in certain cases, Democratic candidates who lost campaign money due to fraud could go back to donors for more money. Rotunda contends the memo used “sophistry” to circumvent campaign contribution limits. By not posting his letter, Rotunda said, Ravel is trying to “muzzle the commissioners.”

But Ravel called the letter “an inflammatory document, which impugned the credibility and professionalism of a member of the staff.” She decided not to post it because, she said, “I felt that it crossed the line.”

Ravel said the staff opinion does not represent official policy until the commission votes on it. Significantly, she said, the commission will not resolve the issue in time to affect fundraising for the 2012 elections. In effect, the politicians affected by the scandal will not be able to raise money from maxed-out donors. “It’s not going to make a difference for the Durkee victims,” Ravel said. “They are stuck.”

One of Ravel’s major initiatives has been to revise a confusing tangle of regulations governing gifts to public officials. Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson praised Ravel for streamlining the rules. “Chairwoman Ravel is doing her best with what I think is a very complicated set of regulations to make it so that people who are running for office don’t necessarily need to work with a political attorney,” Levinson said.

But California Common Cause criticized the revisions for preserving loopholes allowing undue influence on elected officials. Ung said the revised rules still allow lobbyists to host legislators in their Lake Tahoe cabins or to give undisclosed gifts to politicians they are dating.

Ravel said she closed some loopholes. She pointed out that many changes were approved this month by all commissioners except Rotunda, who had to leave the meeting early.

Commissioner Sean Eskovitz, also appointed by Brown, said he supports Ravel’s efforts. “I don’t see her as someone who’s trying to limit or water down enforcement,” he said. “I see it as trying to make the regulations comprehensible for the regulated folks, and focus the time and resources of the commission on cases that will make a difference.”

Political attorney Stephen Kaufman said nobody got exactly what they wanted from the new regulations, but they are a “vast improvement.” Kaufman represents the California Political Attorneys Association before the commission but spoke to California Watch as an individual attorney. “The chair has gone out of her way to tackle some tough issues,” he said. “She’s done a good job with the gift regulations of trying to make sense out of a regulatory scheme that has caused problems for people trying to comply with the law for a very long time.”

But Schnur, the former chairman, said Ravel’s changes “would potentially make the problem worse, not better.” Ravel also reversed Schnur’s policy of posting online the agency’s ongoing investigations, which Schnur saw as a deterrent to wrongdoing. “The speed with which she moved to let the regulated community off the hook suggests that there had been a lot of pressure placed on her, to which she fairly quickly submitted,” Schnur said.

Ravel said she made the change in the name of fairness and due process. She also started notifying the targets of investigations to get their perspectives first. “The respect for due process of the law was not always inherent in some of the ways that things were done,” she said.

Bob Stern, a co-author of the Political Reform Act of 1974 with Jerry Brown, said it’s too early to review Ravel’s work. Stern said it’s a tradition for new chairpersons to come in and “shake things up.”

But in retrospect, Stern said, the chairperson’s position should have always been part-time, like the other commissioners. A full-time chairperson, he said, “creates a tension between the new chair and the staff and the other commissioners. The chair really wants to make a mark and be the person in charge.”