National Voices

Friday, Nov 01 2013 11:00 PM

OTHER VIEWS: FPPC chief helped shine light on dark money

Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission for two years, has left California for a spot on the Federal Election Commission. It's a tremendous loss. Among other things, her groundbreaking work led to last week's record fine in a dark-money case from the 2012 election.

But her pursuit of transparency in elections also is badly needed in Washington. As Ravel's work with the FPPC showed, federal laws are poorly enforced and too weak.

The case, settled last week with a record $16 million in penalties, is a textbook example of what's wrong with campaign finance in the post-Citizen's United era.

A tax-exempt Arizona nonprofit funneled $11 million into California through a series of money transfers -- money laundering, essentially. The donors wanted to defeat Proposition 30, which raised taxes, and pass Proposition 32, which would have curbed unions' political influence.

After the good-government group Common Cause complained, Ravel's FPPC sued the immediate source of the funds, Americans for Responsible Leadership, to learn its donors' identity. The case culminated last week with $1 million in civil penalties and an order to pay the state $15 million, the amount of the contribution in this case and one other.

But Ravel couldn't force disclosure of the original donors. It's only because of sloppy redacting that we know Charles Schwab, Eli Broad and Sheldon Adelson were among them.

Gov. Jerry Brown has said he will push for tougher disclosure laws. "Secrecy and money don't mix well in a democracy," he said in a statement. "We still have big loopholes to close."

Ravel, a former Santa Clara County counsel who lives in Los Gatos, has helped lead a group of officials nationwide pushing for more state rules on disclosure. A patchwork of laws in multiple states might scare off big donors who don't want their names publicized.

But what's needed, at minimum, is a federal Disclose Act, which is stalled in Congress. It would require most groups that try to influence elections to divulge the source of the funds. Ravel's work in Washington can include pressing for tougher disclosure requirements.

"This is a nationwide issue," she said last week. "These groups exploit loopholes in the law to undermine the clear purpose of the law -- to give essential information to the public."

We also hope she can push the Federal Election Commission to better enforce existing law; it and the IRS have been derelict. Political groups such as those run by Karl Rove and funded by the Koch brothers should not be granted nonprofit status so they can hide their donors. These groups, along with trade organizations, spent a reported $309 million nationally in 2012 elections.

The California settlement shows what a true campaign finance watchdog can accomplish.

Washington needs Ravel, and Brown needs to find a successor at the FPPC to follow her example.

-- San Jose Mercury News

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