A fly landed in the Koch brothers' soup last week. California's Fair Political Practices Commission fined two of their many front organizations $1 million for breaking the state's campaign finance laws. The multibillionaire brothers paused long enough to roll their eyes. Then they continued writing checks.
The matching $500,000 fines were, for the record, imposed on two Arizona-based groups, the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Americans for Responsible Leadership. But those out-of-state PACs were merely the end players in the Koch's brothers' attempt, by way of misdirection, to influence two California initiative campaigns in the 2012 election, Propositions 30 (which the Kochs opposed) and 32 (which they supported). Their $11 million satchel-drop represented "the largest contribution ever disclosed as campaign money laundering in California history," according to the FPPC.
The campaign finance disclosure violation, in the words of FPPC chief Ann Ravel, highlights "the nationwide scourge of dark-money, nonprofit networks hiding the identities of their contributors."
Good for the FPPC. Now, if only the agency had the weapons to fight back in a meaningful way with laws that hold big-money donors more directly liable for the campaign law violations that their agents may commit -- call it a RICO law for the political arena.
It sometimes seems that no matter how legislators of good intent write campaign finance laws, the donors who (in many cases) help get them elected find loopholes, exemptions and alterative courses of action that keep the money flowing. But the Legislature must not lose its collective conscience on this front.
Fortunately we see no sign of that. California lawmakers have three relevant bills on the table now, each designed to keep campaign financing in the light of public scrutiny. AB 800 would allow the FPPC to audit a campaign before an election, not just afterward, when the outcome has been decided -- and won't change almost no matter how egregious the sin. Two others, SB 27 and AB 914, would broaden the disclosure requirements for nonprofit organizations that participate in political campaigns inside the state.
The FPPC's job (and that of its Washington counterpart, the Federal Election Commission) was made more difficult by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations and unions unprecedented room to influence elections. Another case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which went before the Supreme Court last week, could undercut most of the remaining regulations that limit big money in politics.
With donation-limiting laws on the ropes, our best hope for some semblance of fair play in political campaigns is disclosure laws. California must remain aggressive in that regard, so the recent Koch brothers bust is a hopeful sign. If only the FPPC had enough muscle to make the Kochs and their ilk actually stop and take notice.