By Associated Press - Sunday, December 8, 2019

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California’s campaign watchdog agency has suspended a policy banning its members from contributing to federal candidates after one commissioner donated to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, a newspaper reported.

The Los Angeles Times said the decision by the Fair Political Practices Commission is drawing criticism from political reform advocates and former state officials who say the policy was put in place to avoid an appearance of bias in favor of candidates whose campaigns are scrutinized by the agency.

The panel voted Sept. 19 to suspend the policy restricting donations and asked the state attorney general for an opinion on the legality and scope of the rules, which some FPPC members say violate their 1st Amendment rights.

“I absolutely believe that both the U.S. and the State constitutions protect my right to make political campaign contributions,” Commissioner Brian Hatch said in an email to the Times. “The issue that the making of campaign contributions is a form of political speech protected by the Constitution has been settled law for nearly five decades.”

Hatch made two campaign contributions totaling $30 to the Sanders campaign in June. In September, he initiated a discussion about the policy that led to the panel vote to suspend it.

“Suffice it to say that I have made a small number of very small contributions to Bernie Sanders for President, just as more than four million other people have,” Hatch said in the email.

The suspended policy was important because “board members are entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the state’s elections in a fair-minded and even-handed way,” said Dan Schnur, a former FPPC chairman who teaches political communication at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley.

“Even the perception of bias undermines the credibility of the board’s decisions,” Schnur told the Times for a story Dec. 4. “If you are going to oversee state elections, then you should be able to restrain yourself from partisan political involvement during your time of service.”

Hatch, a former labor lobbyist who was appointed to the panel in 2017 by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, said he knew about the policy when he made the contributions but believes the commission’s rule is in conflict with a state law that he says bars any action that would impinge on constitutional freedom-of-speech guarantees.

Robert Stern, former general counsel for the FPPC and a coauthor of the state’s Political Reform Act in the 1970s, disagrees with Hatch’s stance, noting that the prohibition on federal campaign contributions has been in place for decades.

“I think it’s wrong for Brian Hatch to make contributions to Bernie Sanders,” Stern told the newspaper. “The policy was put in place by the FPPC in order to remove any appearance of partisanship or bias on the part of commissioners.”

Stern said the commissioner should request that his contributions be returned. Hatch said he would do so if the attorney general finds the rules on contributions extend to federal campaigns and are not in violation of constitutional protections.

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