TPM Interview: California’s Campaign Finance Watchdog Goes To Washington

November 13, 2013 10:33 a.m.

When California’s campaign finance watchdog agency announced a $1 million settlement last month against two groups that were behind a massive, anonymous donation in 2012, it was not only big news in the political world — it was also agency Chair Ann Ravel’s last act.

The next day, Oct. 25, Ravel was sworn in as one of President Obama’s appointed commissioners to the Federal Election Commission.

Ravel, who before her time with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil division, moves from an agency that has been among the most active of the state-level actors enforcing campaign finance rules to one, the FEC, which has been criticized for moving too slowly in the post-Citizens United era of campaign spending. TPM spoke by phone this week with Ravel about her past work and her new job.

TPM: I thought we would start with what’s been in the news lately, the FPPC case with the Arizona groups. Did you think when that case was initiated that it would end up being the kind of high-profile case that it was? And if not, why do you think it got so much attention? And if so, was there an intent to make it high-profile, and was there a message that the FPPC was trying to send with that case?

Ann Ravel: When we initiated that case, there was no thought whatsoever that it would be high-profile. Because it actually was not significantly different from many other matters that the FPPC handled that same election cycle — where we requested greater disclosure in some of the campaign ads, or in other issues. And in most cases — there were about 24 other cases that were of that nature — and in most of the other cases, the political committees complied.

This was a case that we knew we had to litigate, but I anticipated at the time that after the superior court ruled, that it was appropriate for the committee to provide information for a pre-election audit to the FPPC, because of the importance to the voting public that they would comply. And they didn’t. They appealed it.

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The press became interested in it, because I believe of the large contribution, and the fact that it was an out-of-state group. But the interest for the FPPC was that it was a large contribution, and it was a group that had never participated in campaigns in California before. So the fact that they didn’t disclose their donors was a red flag to us. And so it was being handled just as we would have handled any other similar case.

In the announcement of the settlement, the FPPC spoke about a “Koch brothers network,” which is an idea that has been widely reported on. What do you feel the FPPC learned about the way both specifically the Koch brothers are involved with dark money, and the way, more generally, that dark money groups operate?

Well, with regard to the “Koch brothers network” issue, we were repeating what had been said to us by the individuals who were soliciting the contributions in California, but then wanted to send it out of state so that they could protect the anonymity of the donors. They said in their testimony that it was being sent to these groups, and that they selected those groups, specifically because they were part of the Koch brothers network. And it was their view that then this money could come back to California in some form. And obviously it did.

We didn’t learn anything more than that about the Koch brothers network, and we were not specifically targeting them, nor did we, in the settlement. But it was an interesting fact that that is specifically why they were being sought out by this group, Tony Russo et al., who were soliciting the money from donors in California, but did not spend it on issue ads.

What we learned, though — and I think this is the significant factor about this case and why it has given rise to such interest — is something that people already suspected.

California was among several states that we saw get more active in the last couple years in terms of enforcing and policing campaign finance rules. I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about why these state level efforts have been necessary.

If you look at state campaigns, there has been an enormous increase in independent expenditures since Citizens United. And this is, at least for California, interesting. Because California has always permitted the contributions by corporations and by unions. So Citizens United did not change that dynamic, of permitting those independent expenditures. But what it did change was the great increase in money that was being spent in that way. And it also changed the disclosure of the donors.

We actually had laws on the books that related to independent expenditure disclosures, for many years. And they were upheld by the courts. So there was a tradition in California of expecting greater disclosure. So it was a natural animation of rules that already existed and laws that already existed, that we would see these disclosure matters as the most significant matters that remained in political reform.

I also believe that there is a natural sense on the state and local level, too. And we saw independent expenditures in judicial races, which sort of go to the heart of why there is a concern about that kind of anonymity of independent expenditures. When you oversee it at the state and local level, you have much more concern about its impact on the democratic process I think.

Can you tell me about the more recent efforts for states to communicate between one another, if not out and out operate together, like the States’ Unified Network. What was the expectation of the people involved in setting that up? And what should the public expect from those kinds of efforts?

I think the initial expectation was to join together to provide information to each other about the legislation, regulations, [and] court cases that the states are involved in. So that we can learn from each other about how to provide greater disclosure to the public.

Various members had other interests as well. And it was discussed and I think generally agreed, that there would be sharing of enforcement information. So that it could inform other states’ enforcement actions to know that a particular group was involved in an enforcement matter in another state. And it would be much easier to get that information.

I think the SUN network is still at the early stages, but as it progresses it can be a powerful force to get information that’s needed by every state, and to try to make some efforts to get to the true identities of donors to campaigns within their states.

Now you’ve moved to the federal level of campaign finance regulation. How do you see this job, and what are your goals for this job?

I’ve been here two weeks. So I’m still trying to learn the processes that are internal processes and also the federal law. But clearly, my motivations are still the same as they were in California. But I have to figure out how to do it within the context of the FEC’s own rules. But I care deeply about disclosure issues. I care that the public is informed both by information that we provide [and] by having a website that is user friendly to the public so that they can access information about who’s behind campaigns. And I also personally care more about enforcement of significant matters.

At the FPPC, did you have interactions with the FEC? And how did you view the FEC when you were at the FPPC?

I actually had almost no interactions with the FEC when I was at the FPPC. I met some of the commissioners, because I was asked to come to speak at a conference about political law several years in a row. And so I met some of the FEC commissioners.

I’d say my view of the FEC was in many ways colored by press reports. And I also — one of the initiatives that I had, when I was in California, was text message contributions, to approve text message contributions. Because I believe in encouraging people to participate in government, and in voting, and political campaigns. Because I think that’s ultimately the real purpose of campaign finance laws.

And so, actually, California was the first place in the country to approve regulations to permit text message contributions. And I knew at that time that the FEC had refused, at that point, to approve text message contributions. So I had somewhat of a view that perhaps the FEC was a little slow in approving new ways — that were clearly in my view salutary — to get more people involved in politics.

This leads to my next question. And I know you’ve got new co-workers and everything. But the FEC has been criticized for being an agency that has had problems with gridlock, and trouble acting. What parts of those criticisms resonate, and have identifiable causes? And do you think there are ways to work through some of those issues?

Obviously, because everything I hear since I’ve been here is third hand, and I don’t actually know what transpired, I certainly do see that there were reasons why there was — not always gridlock, but certainly less agreement than there could be. And I truly believe that with the new dynamic, with myself and Lee Goodman being now on the commission, that there is a great deal of hope that that will change. And as I’ve said to other people, if I were not an optimist about that, I wouldn’t be here. Because I do like to achieve things.

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