Politics & Government

Dan Walters: Sunshine disinfects California’s campaigns

The pejorative term “dark money” got a heavy workout three years ago regarding the mysterious origins of $15 million spent on two ballot measures.

Ann Ravel, who chaired the Fair Political Practices Commission at the time before moving on to the Federal Election Commission, made it a personal crusade to determine the origins of the money, which flowed through the Small Business Action Committee in California.

It was eventually traced to two nonprofit corporations in Arizona, which were fined by the FPPC.

The money’s original source never was fully established. But since it had been spent to oppose Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase and support another measure to curtail unions’ political power, it was assumed that it came from conservative activists and groups associated with wealthy industrialists Charles and David Koch.

Subsequent legislation and rulemaking have sought to close what critics described as a loophole that allowed large quantities of mystery money to flow into California politics.

This month, the FPPC moved regulations that would require nonprofits to disclose original donors if they contribute to California political campaigns.

Hyde Wagner, the FPPC’s general counsel, told the commission’s members in a report the new rule “clarifies that so-called ‘dark money,’ originating from nonprofit or other organizations whose donors are not disclosed is not permitted in California elections.”

“There should be no dark money in California,” Common Cause representative Gavin Baker told the commission.

That’s a noble sentiment, reinforcing the principle that sunshine is the best disinfectant for politics – better than trying to dictate who can give what to whom, as Common Cause and other reformers often espouse.

Contribution and/or spending limits invite clever people to find clever ways of evading them, such as laundering money through multiple entities.

A common practice in California is for donors and political parties to funnel campaign funds through local party committees, trying to mask their origin.

The sunshine principle was reinforced further when some reform advocates – almost simultaneously with the FPPC’s dark money action – unveiled a proposed ballot measure. It would similarly require disclosure of anyone who contributes $10,000 or more to a nonprofit organization and the money winds up in a political campaign.

Robert Stern, who helped Jerry Brown – then aspiring to the governorship – write California’s 1974-vintage Political Reform Act that created the FPPC, is one of the new measure’s co-sponsors.

The Voters’ Right to Know Act proposes a number of other changes in political regulation as well, and Stern termed it “probably the most significant (reform) since the Political Reform Act of 1974.”

The proposal has a deep-pocket backer in Silicon Valley software executive Jim Heerwagen, who says he wants to restore public trust in politics.

Good for him.