Voters should know who gives to candidates

January 6, 2010 

When voters go to the polls, they deserve to know all the relevant facts about candidates on the ballot.

What are their positions? How have they voted? What's their experience?

And then they need to know the most crucial question: Which interest groups and which individuals are bankrolling their campaigns?

Unfortunately, the state's campaign laws don't always make that information available in a way that is easily accessible or timely.

As California Watch, a project for the Center for Investigative Reporting, noted in a recent article, wealthy and politically well connected donors contributed tens of thousands of dollars to party central committees during the last election cycle.

Those committees, in turn, delivered the money to their party candidates.

Because the money does not go directly to candidates, the donor's identity is often obscured and contribution limits ignored.

Proposition 34, California's complex and easily evaded campaign law, makes this sleight of hand legal. Placed on the ballot in 2000 by the state's most powerful politicians and approved by voters, Proposition 34 permits individuals to contribute a maximum of $3,900 directly to candidates for the state Legislature. But under those same rules, donors can contribute eight times as much, or $32,400, to party central committees in each of California's 58 counties. The committees are then free to pass along those donations to candidates.

It doesn't take a political genius to jump through the loopholes in the law. After contributors max out on their direct contributions, they are encouraged to send more money to party committees. The committees then pass the money on to the contributor's candidate of choice.

While the law forbids coordination between central committees and candidates — wink, wink — such coordination happens.

California Watch offered strong evidence of that. Thus the Democratic Central Committee in tiny Del Norte sent $63,000 to 10th District Assemblywoman Alyson Huber. Marin's party committee sent $100,000 and Sacramento's $25,000.

Locked in a tight race with San Joaquin County Supervisor Jack Sieglock, Huber outspent her opponent by $175,000 in the final month of the campaign and won by a slim 500 votes.

Even more troubling, this practice allows candidates to avoid disclosing the true source of their contributions.

As money flows from donor to remote central committee to candidates, too often the link between candidate and donor becomes obscure.

Worse, Fair Political Practices Commission audits show that political committees frequently fail to disclose the money they distribute to candidates.

For example, Sacramento County's Democrats distributed more than $267,000 in the two weeks before the 2008 election but failed to disclose those transactions before Election Day — a violation of the law.

At minimum, the public should have a right to know who is bankrolling a campaign before they go in the ballot booth. Any candidate who violates disclosure requirements should face stiff penalties — not just the forfeiture of the funds collected and fines paid for by his or her campaign.

These penalties should include personal liability for violations.

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