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Former FEC Chair Ravel on recall donations, dark money

While sitting on board of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from 2013 to 2017 – including one stint as chair – native Californian Ann Ravel became a national voice for stronger campaign finance regulation and reform. Prior to this, she chaired the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). Her tenure included levying the largest campaign-finance fine in U.S. history ($1 million) against two dark money groups connected to the Koch Brothers.

Ravel remains active in campaign finance reform as an attorney and director of Decode Democracy, which advocates for reforming the murky, unregulated world of online political advertising. In January, she also filed a complaint with the FPPC calling for an investigation of $500,000 in dark money contributed by a mysterious donor to the recall petition drive against Gov. Gavin Newsom.

SactoPolitico: What is the latest on your FPPC complaint against the organizers of the recall drive?

Ann Ravel: The FPPC confirmed receiving my complaint rather quickly, but I haven’t received an update since then. I am sort of surprised given that all signatures were due [by March 17]. I have heard the FPPC isn’t well organized right now, and this has caused some incredible delays.

I saw this in a different case too. I represented someone who is the subject of a complaint. It was maybe a year ago when we had our discussion before the FPPC about it, but I have not heard a word from them since about a possible decision. On the other hand when I was Chair of the FPPC, we once received a complaint shortly before the election, and took a case to deal with it all the way to the California Supreme Court within two weeks of the filing of the complaint.

S/P: I saw the Los Angeles Times story from early January. That article tried to track the dark money trail a bit. Did that answer all your questions?

Ravel: No, I still think the issue remains largely in the dark because since I filed my complaint I know even more untransparent money was given to the recall effort. Also right after I filed my complaint, the recall group did admit the original $500,000 in my complaint came from a single person. They ultimately did give the name of the single person, but not immediately. So I think the FPPC, if they are looking at it, should be trying to track all of the group’s money.

S/P: Assuming the FPPC agrees with your complaint, what would be the fine range?

Ravel: I don’t think there is any doubt there was a violation, but I can’t say what the fine might be because it’s not like they work from a defined fine schedule. They look at the behavior and at how much money they were expending improperly. However, this case is similar to the Koch Brothers’ Committees Case in 2012 which resulted in a $1 million fine, but of course, the amount of money involved in this recall case is not as large. The Kochs’ case was a clear violation of the disclosure requirements, which is what this is too.

S/P: There is an ever-increasing amount of money involved in the Supreme Court nomination process. How concerning is that to you?

Ravel: It is hugely concerning because the judiciary is the branch everyone expects to be fair and even-handed. Yet, when they too are the beneficiary of money from outside groups, this faith erodes.

The involvement of big outside money was especially the case in the nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh. There was an enormous amount of dark money that was used for that process. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who used to be a prosecutor, has written a lot about this issue concerning Kavanaugh in particular. I think the impact of a Supreme Court Justice having benefited from dark money expenditures or from contributions made to legislators who make that appointment will have some impact on the judicial branch.

In California, there have been dark money expenditures in superior court races, as well. This is very troubling because there’s a saying in campaign finance circles: “The money is only dark money to the public. It’s not dark to the recipients.”

S/P: In California, what do you think are our most pressing campaign finance issues?

Ravel: What is most concerning are the huge amounts of money spent in state elections, making it difficult for many candidates who are not beholden to special interest groups to run. I ran for office myself, so I’m saying this from my own personal experience. I certainly had groups making independent expenditures on my behalf, but it was nothing like the almost $4 million the unions spent against me.

Generally, when people think about big [donors] in elections, they assume it is all corporate money, when in fact it is being spent on both sides.

[Ed. note: Last year, Ravel ran for Calif. State Senate in the 15th district serving Santa Clara County. She lost the all-Democrat November runoff to incumbent Dave Cortese.]

S/P: The six-person FEC Board lacked a quorum for most of the last two years of Trump’s term. They finally filled the three empty Republican seats, but might this just mean now the Board can vote but may be constantly deadlocked at three-to-three?

Ravel: Before I left the FEC in 2017, I wrote a report about the dysfunction at the FEC that included statistics and information about the very small fines and the number of times we deadlocked on significant matters. What they’ve done by appointing those three Republicans together is to keep it exactly as deadlocked as it has been the last 10 years. One solution to this problem is H.R. 1 [the For the People Act], which the House passed this year and is pending in the Senate. This would change the number of Commissioners to five and have a stronger chair, but it would also create what they call a blue-ribbon commission to make recommendations to the President for appointments.

What was interesting about the perpetual FEC deadlock is while it was partisan because the Republicans were always voting in a block to not do anything, they also voted to prevent us from reviewing the Hilary Clinton presidential campaign. It appeared they didn’t want us establishing any kind of precedent that would also apply to Republicans. Even though they believed our campaign laws and regulations were constitutional, they saw no reason to enforce the law.

S/P: It’s almost like their position is a Libertarian one favoring few rules and an anything goes attitude.

Ravel: Exactly. So I don’t expect anything will change now [that a quorum has been restored]. This started with Don McGahn. He preceded my tenure and would later be White House Counsel. He apparently decided together with Mitch McConnell that if all three Republicans were appointed together and they agreed to all vote as a block, they could prevent the Commission from taking any action whatsoever.

S/P: Last cycle in Sacramento County, one GOP Congressional candidate ran a near completely dark campaign. His campaign treasurer admitted to me this included $300,000 in campaign donations not reported to the FEC. Is it possible this candidate – who has announced he’s running again – is banking on a deadlocked FEC helping him avoid a major fine or any fine at all?

Ravel: It’s possible. Those are the kinds of things we saw constantly. Some candidates either didn’t file their reports at all, or they filed them right before the election to avoid having their information public when people were voting. Their view was that it is better to get a minor fine from the FEC than to disclose those things in advance.

S/P: Your many post-FEC activities have included working with Decode Democracy. What is the origin of the group and what is its main focus?

Ravel: Decode Democracy is the new name of Maplight, whose board I joined in 2017. When I was at the FEC, we had a matter involving a Youtube ad that was clearly a political ad because it referenced Obama. Yet the FEC Board split 3-3 on whether to penalize them. There was no argument that the group never disclosed where the money for that ad came from, but the Republicans argued there were no laws to specifically govern Internet ads.

I disagreed with that outcome. It was my recommendation that the FEC needed to review how to apply campaign advertising regulations to online ads. So after I joined the board of MapLight, we created the Digital Deception Project to study the online aspect of campaign finance reform. This has ultimately transitioned into a priority focus of the organization and the reason for the name change. My emphasis is on policy and advocacy for legislation and governmental oversight. Consequently we are focused on what can be done within the framework of the U.S. Constitution to deal with the spread of deceptive online propaganda.

S/P: It appears some campaign finance reform could happen if there is the political will, but then any changes would come up against an unfriendly Supreme Court. Is the only option left a Constitutional Amendment that bypasses the Supreme Court?

Ravel: I think that’s right. Here’s a good example why. Last year, I filed an amicus brief in a case that Ted Lieu filed challenging the lack of limits on donations to Super PACs [Ted Lieu v. FEC]. However after Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, the Supreme Court did not grant Certiorari. Certiorari requires four justices to vote for a case to be considered by the Court. Now with a 6-3 split on the court, there appears to be even less chance to get campaign finance reforms approved by the Supreme Court, let alone even reviewed.

A clear Constitutional Amendment is one option to bypass review by the present politicized Supreme Court. Another option would be for Congress to augment the number of justices to make the court more even-handed and less politicized.

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