Revelations about state “ethics” commission undermines its credibility.
Republicans have been delving into allegations of Democratic voter fraud, but are having a tough time finding smoking guns given that “irregularities” occur in the form of thousands of individually cast votes. Having grown up in politically seedy Philadelphia, I have no doubt this is a real problem — but it takes massive sleuthing to get to the bottom of it.
But what happens when the vote-rigging takes place in full public view?
Here in California, the Democratic leadership is busy rigging rules in an election. The issue is covered on the front pages. But Democrats control every lever of power, so nothing can derail their efforts to save a vulnerable Democratic senator from a recall. Now the state’s ethics watchdog, the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is in on the action.
A former union lobbyist who serves as an FPPC commissioner “met privately, talked on the phone and exchanged text messages with a lawyer working for Senate Democrats while advocating for the agency to flip a longstanding legal interpretation of campaign finance law in favor of Sen. Josh Newman,” the Sacramento Bee reported on Tuesday.
Since 2002, the agency has enforced a regulation that applies campaign contribution limits (currently $4,400) to state candidates that want to contribute to another state candidate’s recall committee. That rule has been enforced on past recall elections, including the successful 2003 recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and a failed 2008 recall against a Republican state senator, the Bee explained.
But Democrats are desperate to save Newman, a lackluster freshman senator who last November won a seat in Republican-heavy Orange County. After Newman cast a deciding vote to increase the state’s gasoline taxes by 12 cents a gallon and boost vehicle-license fees, Republican activists have targeted him for removal. They’ve turned in signatures and this week will get some initial reports from county registrars regarding validity rates.
Polls suggest Newman is in deep trouble, even among Democratic voters. The Republican Party has at times been its usual inept self. As I wrote for the Spectator, eight GOP legislators backed a 10-year extension to the state’s cap-and-trade system, which could boost gas prices by 63 cents in the next four years. That has muddied the waters on the Newman recall given that it’s harder to capitalize on voter concern over a 12-cent tax increase after that folly.
But Democrats know they are in trouble, and losing Newman means losing their Senate supermajority, which lets them raise taxes without Republican votes. So they want to send an unlimited amount of cash to Newman’s recall committee. Hence, their efforts to get the FPPC to change the rule. It’s likely to be successful as the commission in July voted 3-1 to get a new legal opinion on the matter. The final vote is scheduled next week.
As the Bee story further explained, the meetings between commissioner Brian Hatch and the Democratic attorney were revealed in a public-records request, not as part of any disclosure. Hatch told the newspaper he isn’t required to disclose the meetings: “I see no need for it. All I’m doing is handing someone over a bat to beat me with, and I’m not going to do that.”
It’s all legal, but highly unusual, according to sources quoted in the newspaper. And how’s that for transparency from a state ethics commissioner? A political lawyer, Thomas Hiltachk, who has much FPPC experience told the newspaper, “It has the appearance of being coordinated. Nothing surprises me at all in connection with what the Senate Democrats are doing to protect Josh Newman and prevent his recall at any and all costs.”
Former San Diego Republican councilman Carl DeMaio, who is leading the Newman recall effort, told me the situation “violates the professional standards of conduct that should be adhered to at the state’s watchdog.” He said the situation with Hatch, a Democrat appointed by the Democratic secretary of state, shows that the current system is like having the fox guarding the henhouse.
The FPPC describes itself as an “independent, nonpartisan commission that has primary responsibility for the impartial and effective administration of the Political Reform Act.” It is designed to “ensure that public officials act in a fair and unbiased manner in the governmental decision-making process, to promote transparency in government, and to foster public trust in the political system.”
Although the FPPC chairwoman and staff have behaved honorably in the matter, the meetings certainly raise questions about independence, nonpartisanship, impartiality, fairness, a lack of bias and fostering public trust.
Furthermore, the governor signed a law earlier this year that changes the timeframe for all state recall elections in an obvious attempt to rig the rules to specifically help Newman. Voters who signed the recall petitions now get 30 days to withdraw their signatures. The new process drags out the recall time frame, thus ensuring that the election will be held on a June primary ballot when Democrats are more likely to turn out. It derails efforts by the GOP to capitalize on current voter anger.
Recall supporters say the measure shouldn’t apply to the Newman vote given that it was already underway when the new law was signed, and they’ve headed to court to try to overturn the new law, which they say is unconstitutional.
What does it say when a party has so much power that it can just rewrite the rules to benefit itself in any situation? “Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s the problem,” said DeMaio. That’s right, and sadly there’s nothing that California voters can or will do about it.
Steven Greenhut is a Sacramento-based journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.
Eyal Bartov/Creative Commons