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Money, Ethics And San Diego Politics

Audio

Aired 4/30/10

We discuss changes in local campaign funding from political parties. How does the law reinforce the need for an independent ethics commissions?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Did you say money, Andrew?

ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): I did.

PENNER: Well, money is power, especially during political season. A U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing political parties and corporations to contribute to political candidates increases that power and this week the San Diego City Council agreed that city candidates can receive up to $1,000 each from a political party but probably not until the end of June. The high court decision encouraged the county grand jury to weigh in on stronger ethical oversight on political campaigns and lobbyists and conflicts of interest. So, John, let’s start with that U.S. Supreme Court decision last January. It gave corporations the power to contribute to political campaigns but how did political parties get that power?

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, what happened here is the political parties or – We have a case in California and this comes directly to Judge Gonzalez here in San Diego, where the Republican Party challenged this whole idea of the limitation on individual contributions in parties of not being able to go out and spend, indirectly, say, to various committees. And the Republicans were also behind what happened in terms of the Supreme Court decision, which now says that entities can give without limitations, that you can give money to whatever group you want to, find a group, finance on behalf of a candidate. The candidate doesn’t have to say anything about it or be in support of what’s happening but can be the beneficiary. So it gave corporations, in effect, who are artificial personalities the same status as individuals without the limitations. Judge Gonzalez has taken some of that and applied it into the San Diego case where the Republican Party filed to challenge its limitation of $500.00. The city council this week voted to increase the amount that individuals could give to $1,000 but it’s clear that that’s not going to satisfy what the party wants because the Republican Party wants limits taken off so that they can fund, in the entirety, those that are running in terms of independent activities.

PENNER: So why aren’t the Democrats getting on this, Alisa? I mean, you know, word is that local Republicans have gathered far more money than local Democrats and so they want to see those caps raised. Could this develop into another Supreme Court case?

ALISA JOYCE BARBA (Western Bureau Chief, National Public Radio): You know, I have no idea. I’m sorry. I really have no idea whether this can develop into another Supreme Court case. I think that they – on the Democratic side, first, there’s concern because frankly at least in California, in Southern California, the Republicans are more – are better financed than the Democrats. But where the – where this affects the Democrats is that the unions no longer have a cap on their contributions as well.

PENNER: Okay. So right now it looks as though San Diego is in a kind of a unique situation, Andrew. It’s the first in the nation to try to put – or will put a cap on spending by political parties in individual campaigns. Are you surprised that San Diego is sort of at the forefront of this?

DONOHUE: Well, I think it is actually – it was a sort of a confluence of events. It was just that the Republican Party and Phil Thalheimer, a former city council candidate, had actually filed his suit and then we had this ruling in Citizens United by the Supreme Court and sort of piggybacked right on what was happening here locally. So I don’t know that it’s surprise, it’s almost happenstance.

PENNER: But it’s interesting to me that the county grand jury report that came out this week emphasized, John, that in difficult economic times, local government needs to have strong, independent oversight of its leaders to keep them on the straight and narrow and transparent in their dealings. Why is the grand jury raising this concern now?

WARREN: Well, you know, this county grand jury—and people get confused because there are two kinds of grand juries—this is a civil grand jury that does opinions in terms of governmental issues and policies. And what it said from the beginning is that the Ethic Commission (sic) should be separate and apart from those people who are elected and they should not be the one staffing or stacking the commission. We have a 7-member commission here that was reduced to 5, two have resigned earlier than the…

PENNER: In the City of San Diego.

WARREN: In the City of San Diego. The mayor the other day reappointed a couple of people. But the teeth that the grand jury’s talking about are not there because the grand jury wants to see the commission in an independent posture that does not exist right now in San Diego.

PENNER: I’m seeing another kind of linkage, though. Alisa, I’m going to come back to you on this. The linkage I’m seeing is that I sense that the change in campaign financing laws reinforces the need for a strong Ethics Commission.

BARBA: Well, that’s what the grand jury is saying, is that we need a strong and independent, not funded by the city council, Ethics Commission that will be able to be a watchdog, essentially, to make sure – to see so that the public needs to know what this kind of, you know, open-ended contributions or the minimal caps of what the Supreme Court case said is that you really do run the possibility that candidates will be funded by special interests, by corporations, by business groups and, at the very least, I think what the grand jury is saying is that the Ethics Committee needs to make sure that these funding sources are transparent, that the voters can know who is paying for the candidates so…

PENNER: You know, I wasn’t going to put out a call but I can’t resist. I think it’s so interesting. Here this grand jury has been meeting all year and they come out with this report. It’s somewhat under the radar. I don’t know how many people actually know there’s a grand jury and know that there is a report. But this is kind of an important report. I mean, it’s recommending, for example, that the County establish an Ethics Commission to audit county elections, to enforce lobbying laws and investigate conflict of interest. Now that – I don’t know how new that is but it’s not really making the news. Did you cover this at all, Andrew, in voiceofsandiego?

DONOHUE: No. No, we didn’t but I am covering it now, I guess.

PENNER: Our – Let me just throw out our number. If somebody wants to call, they’ll have a few seconds. 1-888-895-5727. Go ahead, Andrew.

DONOHUE: Well, this is a fundamental problem with the county grand jury, is a lot of times what they put out is irrelevant. I don’t believe that’s the case with this one but a lot of the reports just sort of hit a big stack of voluminous reports that we have here in San Diego. But the point that they’re making here on the county is actually really important. If you look at it, the county has nobody enforcing lobbying laws, nobody auditing, like you said, or investigating either campaign finance, and then very importantly just nobody educating the staffs and the politicians and the people, the consultants who work in this. I think that’s a really important job that often gets overlooked because we call it the Ethics Commission and I don’t think that’s actually a very – it’s not a very accurate name for what they do.

PENNER: What should we call it?

DONOHUE: Well, you know, the report actually suggested that it was the City of San Diego…

PENNER: Affair…

DONOHUE: …Political Practices…

PENNER: …Fair Political…

DONOHUE: …Commission.

PENNER: …Fair Political Practices, yeah.

DONOHUE: Exactly. Because a lot of what they do is actually just issue opinions, hold workshops, do this sort of thing to actually inform people because a lot of times when they fine candidates, it’s not purposeful but the candidates actually have made a stumble or, you know, not done something very well in accordance with campaign laws.

PENNER: Well, Marti Emerald was just fined $3,000 worth.

DONOHUE: Yes, she was.

PENNER: Yeah, right.

DONOHUE: Yeah, and which was a huge blow-up. But the county has sort of flown under the radar for many years while the city has grabbed a lot of attention and the city could – or, the county could use a watchdog in there. The only problem is, is you need somebody from the outside to sort of storm in and actually propose this and you don’t see that at the county right now.

PENNER: John.

WARREN: Well, in a nutshell, remember San Diego is a charter city and the county’s a charter county. The city is ahead of the county in the fact that it had an Ethics Commission. The grand jury would have to speak in terms of the county. It couldn’t just limit itself to the city because there are 17 other cities that should be regulated in some fashion likewise. So the grand jury’s, in effect, trying to catch up with what the city was already doing but it all comes like a perfect storm with Judge Gonzalez and the Supreme Court case from earlier and now the city council action, which mixes it up if people don’t understand how these pieces are separate but yet connected.

PENNER: So what chances are there there will be changes?

WARREN: I think there are good chances there’ll be changes but none before June 8th. No changes will come before the primary because that could be considered an unfair advantage and it could dilute the process and there are just great fears about that. But I think after June 8th, we’ll see changes. They probably won’t be ready for November but people will be talking about them toward November.

PENNER: Alisa, I’m sorry, we have run out of time. I wanted to ask you for your opinion on this but you’re going to have to reserve it for tonight.

BARBA: I do.

PENNER: We’re going to do San Diego Week. You’ll have a chance to talk about that at eight o’clock on KPBS television, not about that issue but about immigration. Okay, I want to thank our editors enormously, Andrew Donohue, voiceofsandiego.org and John Warren from San Diego Voice & Viewpoint and Alisa Joyce Barba from NPR News. And thank you, our listeners and our callers. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

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