Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Transparency, Trust, and Campaign Finance

By Miriam Schulman

The problem with political campaigns is not only the amount of money being spent on them; it's the fact that the contributions are anonymous. That was the main message of Ann Ravel, chair of California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), at a recent talk for the Ethics Center.

"I too am offended by the huge amounts of money that are spent by wealthy individuals or corporations with no disclosure," she said. "But the money is a fact of life...for the candidates to run their own campaigns. And for Independent Expenditures, it's a fact of life due to Citizen's United [a Supreme Court decision allowing corporate and individual donors to give an unlimited amount of money to Independent Expenditure Committees, which don't have to indicate where the money comes from.] What's left is to disclose."

Disclosure, Ravel argued, allows voters to understand where the money comes from so that they can assess the validity of campaign claims. "We have to have enough disclosure so people know what they need to know about the candidates," she said.

Since the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United in 2010, however, disclosure has been severely compromised, according to Ravel. "Forty percent of Independent Expenditure money is anonymous. That's the real problem," she said.

Ravel disagreed with the Supreme Court's decision, calling it "bizarre." "The court has said it's corrupting for donors to give money directly to candidates, but not to Independent Expenditure Committees. Why?"

Independent expenditures have had a major impact on local races, Ravel said. In the San Francisco mayoral race, where there is a $500 limit on contributions to campaign committees, millions of dollars have flown to Independent Expenditure Committees.

Among other responsibilities, the FPPC is charged with regulating campaign financing and spending in the state. It also regulates:

  • • financial conflicts of interest
  • • lobbyist registration and reporting
  • • post-governmental employment
  • • mass mailings at public expense
  • • gifts and honoraria given to public officials and candidates

Some of these other areas were the subject of a separate meeting Ravel held with the Ethics Center's Public Sector Roundtable. Ravel spoke candidly about the unintended consequences that can arise from the FPPC's work.

Ravel has instituted a regulatory review process to try to eliminate "rules that ensnare people who are trying to do the right thing." In general, she said, the FPPC is "trying to be more of an education agency than a gotcha agency."

Miriam Schulman is the assistant director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

October 2012


New Materials

Center News