- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 9, 2017

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - A member of California’s independent political watchdog commission coordinated behind the scenes with a lawyer for state Senate Democrats before voting to overturn a longstanding precedent that would have limited fundraising by a Democratic lawmaker facing a recall, records show.

The Fair Political Practices Commission approved the change at a meeting last month, rejecting its own lawyers’ legal analysis and accepting the interpretation put forward by the Democratic attorney, Richard Rios.

At issue is whether Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton can accept unlimited donations from fellow lawmakers in his fight to fend off a recall election.

Longstanding commission guidelines say he can only accept $4,400 from each of his colleagues’ campaign accounts. But at Rios’s request, the commission voted 3-1 on July 27 to lift that restriction. The decision is subject to a final vote at this month’s meeting.

The FPPC enforces campaign finance, conflict of interest, lobbying and government ethics rules and works to promote transparency and trust in government.

Commissioner Brian Hatch met with Rios in the Long Beach area and later communicated with him through emails, phone calls and text messages prior to the vote, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through a California Public Records Act request made last month.

The night before Rios submitted a letter asking the commission to change its campaign finance guidance, records show he sent a draft to Hatch, who then suggested an edit. His suggestion to request a hearing at the commission’s “next” meeting instead of the “August” meeting was incorporated into the letter.

Hatch was not prohibited by commission rules from speaking with Rios, and he said his communications with Rios did not affect his vote.

But ethics experts say the discussions could raise public doubt about the decision. Senate Democrats have already faced criticism for jamming a change to recall election procedures through the Legislature without a full public hearing in another effort to help Newman.

Hatch defended his communication with Rios, saying he needed to conduct his own research into the matter because he can’t count on unbiased information from Chair Jodi Remke and the commission staff. Remke and the staff tried to pressure commissioners to adopt a predetermined outcome, he said.

“If I can’t have that stuff presented to me by the staff under the watchful eye of the chair, then I have to find it myself,” Hatch told The Associated Press. “That’s why I’m doing a lot of research myself. This is supposed to be a part-time job but I spend a lot of time.”

Hatch said he made up his mind before ever speaking with Rios and then worked to ensure the lawyer’s request wasn’t dismissed. He didn’t publicly disclose his communications with Rios to the other commissioners before the July vote.

“Any communications between attorney and commissioner were completely appropriate, commonplace and expected on a matter of such importance,” said Jason Kinney, a spokesman for Senate Democrats. “There’s no real story here beyond ensuring that the FPPC’s interpretation of the Political Reform Act is sound and impartial.”

Hatch, a Democrat and former lobbyist for the California Professional Firefighters, was appointed to the commission in March by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat.

Remke said in a statement that the commission is reviewing procedures to ensure the integrity of the commission is not questioned. Through a spokesman, Remke declined to comment on Hatch’s allegations.

“The FPPC will let the public record on this matter speak for itself,” Jay Wierenga, the agency’s spokesman, said.

Hatch’s communications look like a backroom deal even if there wasn’t one, said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and chair of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. Failing to disclose conversations with an interested party can cause the public to distrust the propriety of decisions made by public institutions, she said.

“He didn’t call up a law professor. He called someone with skin in the game. He called the person who brought the motion,” Levinson said. “I think he absolutely should ask all these questions and he should feel confident in all his decisions, but do it on the record or tell someone you did it.”

Records provided by other commissioners do not show any private communications with Rios. Republican commissioners Maria Audero and Allison Hayward also voted in favor of the change.

Commissioners are prohibited from communicating privately with a person facing fines or other enforcement actions but not with people, like Rios, requesting a change in the commission’s policy opinions “so long as issues of fairness and bias are considered,” according to a manual provided to commissioners.

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