- Associated Press - Monday, March 10, 2014

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - State lawmakers sent Gov. Jerry Brown a bill Monday designed to strengthen California’s campaign finance standards in response to a recent case that prompted the largest campaign reporting fine in state history.

The measure, AB800, passed the Assembly on a 54-19 vote, despite Republican objections to a portion of the bill that would give the state’s political watchdog agency the authority to audit campaign funds and seek court injunctions to force compliance with its investigations before elections.

“We’re going to give unchecked power to the FPPC,” said Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, referring to the state Fair Political Practices Commission. “Unaccountable bureaucrats will have the power to launch investigations … to harass candidates with absolutely no checks, absolutely no balances.”

The resulting publicity could doom candidates who only after the election would have the chance to clear their name if they’ve done nothing wrong, he and other Republicans said.

“We all know what the headlines are going to be, and headlines can be misleading. Believe me, I’ve been in a lot of them,” said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, who is running for governor against Gov. Jerry Brown. “What matters is that you have now put in place the power to affect an election.”

The bill’s author, Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park, countered that the change will give the public confidence that elections are conducted fairly.

His legislation responds to $15 million in anonymous donations, known as “dark money,” that was spent against Brown’s successful tax increase initiative in 2012 and for a separate initiative that would have limited unions’ ability to raise money for political purposes.

The donors gave their money through an Arizona-based nonprofit that funneled the cash to California political action committees through intermediary groups, the commission found. It issued a $1 million fine against two of the groups involved.

“The intent is to give the FPPC the authority to address concerns as they arise,” Gordon said. “It will allow us to say to the public, ‘Your elections are free from any type of scandal or concern.’”

Other provisions of the bill give regulators two years, instead of the current one year, to audit campaign funds, and address disclosure of donations by subcontractors and sub-vendors such as those involved in the 2012 dark money case. Candidates who leave office also would have to decide within 90 days what to do with any remaining campaign money.

The bill will take effect July 1 - in time for this year’s general election campaigning - if Brown signs it into law.

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