Ann Ravel, the California Fair Political Practices Commission chairwoman, intends to seek clarity by compelling nonprofit corporations that donate huge sums to state campaigns to disclose sources of their money, at least in some circumstances.
As she proceeds, Ravel can expect opposition from the left and right, though for now she is being encouraged by the left, and the person who appointed her, Gov. Jerry Brown.
California Common Cause is demading that Americans for Responsible Leadership, a hitherto obscure Arizona nonprofit corporation, disclose donors who gave $11 million that the nonprofit contributed to a campaign operation called Small Business Action Committee.
Its name notwithstanding, this group raises huge sums from big business and rich people. This year, it's opposing Brown's tax initiative, Proposition 30, and promoting Proposition 32, which would restrict organized labor's ability to raise campaign money.
"It's complete money laundering," Brown said over the weekend.
FPPC attorneys sent a letter to the group's Virginia law firm demanding details about the donation. The firm refused. The warring sides appeared in a Sacramento County Superior court on Thursday, and the judge promptly set a hearing on the issue for Tuesday.
Ravel believes the California Political Reform Act, created by a 1974 initiative that Brown sponsored, requires that such social welfare corporations disclose their donors if the contributors know their money will be used for a particular campaign.
"This amount of money? You can't tell me that they don't know," Ravel said.
If the source of the money is murky, the motivation is not. Robert Graham, a Phoenix investment adviser, is a director of Americans for Responsible Leadership, and has written a book titled "Job Killers." In a video promoting the book, he calls labor "parasitic" and says unions "suck the life blood" from business, drive up taxes and are "destroying American jobs." It's no shock that he would support an initiative aimed at wrecking unions.
Beth Miller, spokeswoman for the Small Business Action Committee campaign effort, defended Americans for Responsible Leadership's lack of disclosure. "They are within the law," she said.
A few years ago, Miller was spokeswoman for two California secretaries of state, Bill Jones and Bruce McPherson, who advocated greater disclosure of campaign money. Miller said she still supports disclosure but argued that some donors cloak their identities for fear of retribution.
Maybe people who can donate $1 million or $11 million would quake in fear if Jerry Brown said mean things about them. Maybe a guy who writes a book denouncing labor would fret that unions would become angry if it were known that he donated to the Yes on 32 campaign.
Or maybe the donors are controversial, and if their identities became public, they'd damage the campaign they seek to help.
Outrage tends to be situational. When the left is skewered, good- government types squawk. When the right is a target, the outrage is muted. Once in a rare while, someone tosses a curve.
In 2008, a lawyer in Missouri created a nonprofit corporation and used it to funnel $175,000 to a campaign committee established by Sacramento political veterans to promote an initiative that could have helped Republicans control the White House by changing how California allocates its 55 electoral votes. Incensed that the lawyer tried to hide the donor's identity, the Californians abandoned the campaign.
A $175,000 donation was significant in 2008. In Campaign 2012, it's a drop in the bucket. Unless Ravel is able to compel greater disclosure, what we are seeing now will be eclipsed in 2014.
THE SACRAMENTO BEE