Ann Ravel, chair of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, hopes to reinvigorate her agency and make it the nation’s most aggressive public watchdog of campaigns, candidates and consultants, she told Calbuzz in a recent interview.
With the backdrop of the Kinde Durkee scandal making clear the need for greater oversight of politics in California, Ravel said the time is right to revamp the policies, practices and procedures of the FPPC.
“Public trust in government is at an all-time low,” she told us. “Our goal is to make information about who is paying for campaigns available in an immediate, accessible and organized way that is useful for voters in understanding and demystifying the political process.”
Over a celery root, apple, gorgonzola and toasted walnut salad at Barbacco in San Francisco’s Financial District, Ravel discussed a three-part strategy for bringing into the 21st Century an agency that was created by initiative back when Jerry Brown had hair and was governor the first time. Ravel’s challenge:
1. Aggressively pursue cases of money laundering and illicit campaign spending.
2. Create a whiz-bang, state-of-the-art, information-packed web site.
3. Raise funds from private foundations to finance ongoing web site operations.
Fighting internet propaganda: Ravel is smart and ethical. She has no personal or political agendas. She believes democracy is best served by the greatest possible transparency in the political process. And she sees that voters are increasingly turning away from newspapers and getting their information about politics from the internet.
So it burns her backside to know that campaigns are using the intertubes to propagandize without letting internet readers and viewers know where the information is coming from and who’s paying for it. And she’s determined that California’s political watchdog should address a trend that is only going to grow.
Her initial idea, based on her experience at the Federal Trade Commission, was simple but flawed: require any communication on the internet – from a tweet to a treatise – to include a disclosure that it was paid for by a political candidate or committee.
But on further reflection, she recognized that commercial advertising shouldn’t and doesn’t enjoy the same First Amendment protection that political speech does. And even scum-sucking, secretly-paid mouth organs for political causes have a First Amendment right to say or write whatever they want about politics. The only time they can be required to disclose that their communication was paid for is when they use the public airwaves, on TV or radio.
The government, however, does not own or control the internet. You can violate the law on the internet — libel comes to mind. But within wide bounds, you can pretty much say what you want and you can’t be compelled to say something you don’t want to say. You can say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. You’d be wrong, but it’s your right to be wrong.
Propagandizing for a candidate and/or cause or just writing about politics on a web site that accepts ads from candidates and/or causes is no different, in terms of constitutional rights, than writing a pamphlet, a letter to the editor or publishing a newspaper. It’s free speech.
But with ever greater numbers of people relying on the internet for political news, shouldn’t there be some mechanism by which unsuspecting readers and surfers are told that what they’re reading or viewing was bought and paid for by a candidate or cause?
Make candidates disclose it all Yes, Ravel has concluded. And the constitutional way to do it is to require the candidates and committees who are paying people to tweet, propagandize and shill to disclose that they’re making those payments for that purpose.
Monitoring this kind of campaign spending is at least as important as making sure some bureaucrat in Sacramento discloses her $15 lunch with a lobbyist. But the FPPC forms and disclosure requirements for campaigns are so loose and weak, and the scant information that is there is so difficult to decipher that they’re virtually useless. The Secretary of State’s site has all the data but it’s damn near impenetrable.
What Ravel wants to do – and we heartily endorse the idea – is to sharpen the FPPC’s focus on how money is raised and spent in campaigns and then to make that information widely available to California voters. She has the opportunity to show the rest of the nation how a state watchdog can improve the information voters have when they exercise their franchise.
First, the disclosure forms campaigns fill out need to be much more specific about how money is spent. If a $100,000 payment is made to a campaign consultant who when hires someone to tweet on the candidate’s behalf, the payment to the tweeter needs to be disclosed. New categories for expenditures and new rules about requiring candidates and committees to show the end use of funds need to be crafted and put in place. In addition, more frequent and timely reports must be required.
Meanwhile, the FPPC should develop a state-of-the-art, compelling web site that gleans the most interesting and important information that’s flowing into the state from these reports. What’s needed is a site as good or better than www.opensecrets.org, the project of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks, digests and highlights important campaign and lobby spending at the federal level. The FPPC doesn’t have to replicate the massive database at the Secretary of State’s site: it just has to mine it and re-present it in a searchable, readable and customizable format, like Open Secrets does with FEC data.
Shine a bright light: With a small staff of researchers, reporters and technology people, the FPPC could keep California voters and media alike informed about the inflow and outflow of campaign and political money – becoming a key information source for people interested in state politics and public policy.
To ensure that the web site is non-partisan and actually does what few elected officials are eager to encourage, Ravel should raise money from private foundations dedicated to transparency and disclosure in politics. The best and cleanest way to do that would be to form a non-profit FPPC Foundation to oversee the fundraising and the web site. At the start, we don’t see why Ravel herself shouldn’t be chair of both the FPPC and the Foundation.
As for the membership of the Foundation’s board, that’s a formula that greater minds can work on, but it likely ought to include appointees from the legislative, executive and judicial branches of state government and perhaps some representation from counties, cities and schools. Once funds have been raised and the web operation set in motion, there really ought to be little for the board to do except keep an eye on things.
If Ravel can put all these pieces together, she will have truly moved the FPPC into the 21st Century and advanced the cause of open democracy and public disclosure in California. Not a bad day’s work.