Project aims to help prevent Californians from violating political ethics rules

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The hundreds of elected officials, lobbyists and campaign staffers who must abide by the rules of California’s Political Reform Act (PRA) are likely to face fewer violations as a result of a revision project spearheaded by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).

Since 1974, those working in California’s political arena have been guided by the PRA, the law governing campaign finance, governmental ethics and lobbying. Over the years, the law has been amended multiple times resulting in requirements that are frequently difficult to understand and follow. The simplified and modernized version should help Californians in politics avoid many of the most common mistakes that result in violations.

Though the FPPC has a help line and regularly holds workshops on the law, many candidates, lobbyists, public office holders and their staffs inadvertently violate the rules. In 2015, the FPPC enforced 775 violations, including 333 cases that resulted in fines totaling more than $700,000. While some of those cases may have resulted from informed actions, a significant number of violations were accidental oversights by those who didn't know or understand the serpentine language of the PRA.

The FPPC endeavored to assist those with questions by taking 7,612 calls to their “Ask the FPPC” phone line and answering 8,300 emails in 2015 alone. Many of those inquiries were seeking clarification on PRA rules and regulations.

Some of the most frequent questions are about identifying conflicts of interest, properly reporting business income on a Statement of Economic Interest (SEI), also known as a Form 700, and determining when to file a pre-election statement. The list of queries is extensive for those campaigning for and taking office.

Those who lose an election may think their work is done once the final vote is tallied. Not so. In fact, failing to either terminate a campaign committee or file the next campaign statement after losing an election represents the most common violation the FPPC sees.

The second most common violation is failing to file a Leaving Office SEI, followed by failing to file an annual or assuming SEI. The top six violations are rounded out by failure to disclose contributions and expenditures on campaign statements, failure to include basic data such as street address or employer on Campaign Statements, missing sub-vendor reporting, failure to accurately disclose information on the Form 700, and not including the “Paid for by” disclaimer language on mailings. 

Rather than ramp up more resources to answer questions about the complicated text, the FPPC is working to update and clarify the law. The goal is to provide clear and clean language that everyone can understand.

“We will always strive to provide the best education, outreach and advice on the Act as possible. But a simpler Act will be easier to understand, so candidates and the public won't need to ask what it means, they'll know,” said Jodi Remke, FPPC Chair.

The FPPC launched the project in partnership with California Forward with funding from the James Irvine Foundation. The process started with a full line-by-line edit of the document by two teams of law students at UC Davis and UC Berkeley. A public comment period followed and input was gathered. The document was again edited, this time by a team of plain-English legal writers lead by Professor Bryan Garner, a legal writing expert and author. 

The public is invited to review and comment on the current draft of the PRA through December 31. This second round of public comment is part of the final technical review in preparation for presenting the PRA to the California Legislature for consideration in 2017

For more information on the Political Reform Act Revision Project and to stay updated on the progress, visit the project's page and sign up for updates.


Amber Nelson

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