A CalMatters analysis shows the state has a broken system to collect unpaid penalties for late campaign reports.
KEEP TABS ON THE LATEST CALIFORNIA POLICY AND POLITICS NEWS
Lea este artículo en español.
California’s secretary of state’s office has failed to collect $2 million in fines owed by politicians, lobbyists and campaign donors who the office says filed disclosure reports late, a CalMatters analysis shows. It’s allowed some of the largest fines to languish for many years with no consequences to those who are supposed to pay up.
The debts are owed by a range of political players, according to a list published on the secretary of state’s website that details outstanding fines as of April 1. It shows fines owed by 26 state lawmakers and 21 superior court judges, as well as former legislators, losing candidates, ballot measure campaigns, Democratic and Republican clubs and corporate and labor-backed political action committees.
Some of the fines are very small. About 300 of them are less than $100, reflecting paperwork filed a few days late — a routine violation of campaign finance law that’s the political equivalent of a parking ticket.
But 45 of the fines are more than $10,000, and some are for violations more than a decade ago — raising questions about whether California is effectively enforcing its campaign finance law that is meant to promote transparency and prevent corruption.
“Enforcement in California is horribly lax up and down the scale, whether it’s regulatory compliance or criminal compliance,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “The rules ought to be clear, they ought to be fair, they ought to be enforceable and they ought to be enforced.”
The secretary of state’s office sends three letters to people who owe the fines, but doesn’t take steps beyond that to collect the money, spokesperson Joe Kocurek said. In the past, he said, staff members called people who were behind on paying their fines, but that became too time consuming.
The problem has persisted long before Shirley Weber, the current secretary of state, took office in January. Still, she said she’ll look into the issue to see if any changes should be made. Though $2 million is a tiny portion of California’s more than $200 billion annual budget, it’s roughly as much as the state spends to educate about 190 students for a year.
“It’s a large amount of money, and so the question is: What can we legitimately do?” Weber said in an interview this week. “They’ve done things in the past, (but) what good is a fining system, if you can’t enforce it?”
Sam Mahood, a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla — who was secretary of state for six years before Weber — said the office “has limited resources and enforcement mechanisms to collect late fines.” Even so, it collected more than $3.6 million in fines during Padilla’s tenure, he said.
The lax enforcement is a far cry from the experience ordinary Californians face if they, for example, neglect to pay a traffic ticket. Those fines increase when people don’t pay. Eventually, people can be charged with a misdemeanor for not paying, or have their tax refunds seized through a debt collection process.
“Once you get a fine in the criminal justice system, it compounds and increases and it easily takes over your life if you are low-income,” said Natasha Minsker, a lobbyist who has pushed for more leniency in traffic fines.
“The fact that these fines (on politicians and judges) can go unpaid without any consequence, it’s definitely an illustration of privilege.”
A bureaucratic maze
Legislators write laws and judges enforce laws, so they have an especially high duty to obey them. CalMatters analyzed the list posted on the secretary of state’s website and contacted lawmakers and judges who, according to the list, owed more than $1,000 as of April 1. CalMatters also contacted campaigns that owe more than $30,000 and politicians who owe relatively small amounts but hold prominent positions.
The process revealed a byzantine system of accountability. Until CalMatters contacted them, many officials on the list said they had never been notified about an outstanding fine. Others said they were aware of it, but were negotiating to have it reduced or waived. Some were confused that the secretary of state was lodging campaign finance violations because they had already resolved an issue with the Fair Political Practices Commission. While the FPPC is responsible for enforcing broader provisions of the campaign finance law, both agencies can levy fines for late disclosure reports. The Commission on Judicial Performance also can discipline judges for violating campaign finance law.
The largest outstanding fine for a public official is nearly $38,000 owed by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jennifer Madden stemming from her 2016 campaign. She did not return multiple messages seeking comment. In 2019, she paid a $4,000 fine to the FPPC for failing to file required campaign disclosures in 2016.
CalMatters found several instances where officials said they are working to resolve the fines, either by paying them off or asking to have them waived:
- Assemblymember Eloise Reyes, a San Bernardino Democrat, owes nearly $15,000 from her 2016 campaign. She said in a statement that her attorneys are working to resolve the issue “and once that occurs any outstanding fines will be paid as soon as possible.”
- State Sen. Shannon Grove, a Bakersfield Republican, owes a total of $3,940 from campaigns in 2012, 2014 and 2018. The fines “should have been paid in full when we were first notified,” Grove said in an email. “I regret the payment was not made on time, as promised to me. I have been assured by my Treasurer that the fines will be paid in full by (mid-April).”
- Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Annette Rees owes $2,410 from her 2020 campaign. She said the secretary of state notified her of the fine last month — a year after she had resolved the same issue with the FPPC, which resulted in a warning letter. “I filed an appeal of the (Secretary of State) fines,” Rees wrote in an email. “I am currently awaiting a decision in my appeal.” On July 21, the secretary of state’s office notified Rees that those fines had been waived.
- Sen. Steven Bradford owes $1,490 and Assemblymember Chris Holden owes $1,160, both from their 2020 campaigns. The Los Angeles Democrats have asked to have the fees waived, according to their lawyer Stephen Kaufman. “Once they receive a determination from the Secretary of State, the committees will pay any remaining fees that have not been waived or reduced,” Kaufman said by email.
- Marin County Superior Court Judge Sheila Shah Lichtblau owed $1,090 from her 2016 campaign. Her treasurer, David Lichtblau, said he filed required disclosures on time with the county elections office, but that the secretary of state didn’t accept the forms through the county’s electronic filing system. He said that he resubmitted them directly to the state, and that he and the county registrar requested that the state waive any penalties. The secretary of state “recently admitted the waiver was never processed,” David Lichtblau wrote in an email. After he resubmitted the request, Lichtblau said, the secretary of state waived the fines.
- Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon owes $90, from his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. He believes the fines should be waived, said his campaign spokesperson Bill Wong: “Sometimes there is a mistake in billing. While it’s in dispute, we are not going to pay it.”
In other cases, officials said they were unaware that the secretary of state’s list shows they owe outstanding fines until CalMatters raised questions:
- Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua, a Stockton Democrat, owes more than $10,000 from his 2018 run. A campaign spokesman said Villapudua was not notified of the fine. Last year, Villapudua paid a $483 fine to the FPPC for filing 2018 campaign disclosures late. He “never got anything from the secretary of state saying, ‘You owe $10,000,’” said Lee Neves.
- Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge JoAnne McCracken was listed as owing $4,097 from a 2010 campaign. The secretary of state now acknowledges the fine was assessed in error.
- Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Efrain Matthew Aceves owes $1,450 from his 2016 campaign. He also said he had no knowledge of the fine until contacted by CalMatters. “I want to follow the law to the letter of the law,” Aceves said in a phone interview. “What’s odd to me is that there weren’t any notifications at all, and now it’s five years later.”
- Sen. Richard Roth, a Riverside Democrat, owed $1,120 from his 2016 campaign. He was unaware of the fine until questioned by CalMatters, attorney James C. Harrison said, but promptly paid up after learning of it. Days later, Roth’s campaign heard from the secretary of state’s office “that the fine was assessed in error and that they would be returning Senator Roth’s check,” Harrison said in an email.
- GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox, who says he will challenge Gov. Gavin Newsom if there’s a recall election, owes $650. “California residents face a maze of burdensome regulations covering nearly every part of their lives,” he said in a statement. “This is a perfect… example.”
- State schools superintendent Tony Thurmond owes $550 from a 2014 campaign for Assembly. His spokesperson David Beltran called it a clerical error and said “it’ll be paid immediately.”
Weber did not address any specific fine but said that her office may have difficulty collecting some debts if campaign committees disband after an election.
“Some of these folks on this list haven’t been in existence in forever. And so as a result… who do you contact?” she said.
The FPPC has its own log of outstanding fines — which stands at $414,112 for cases from 2014 to 2020, according to spokesperson Jay Wierenga. It includes fines for various violations of California’s political ethics law, not just for filing disclosure reports late. But its procedure can include more repercussions than the secretary of state’s: It refers outstanding debts to the Franchise Tax Board, which can garnish tax refunds and state lottery winnings.
Bob Stern, who helped write California’s campaign finance law in the 1970s, said it was intentionally designed with multiple channels of enforcement, even though that comes with some inefficiencies.
“We were concerned that if you put it all in one agency there could be a problem,” Stern said. “It was a conscious decision we made to have different agencies enforce the law because we wanted to ensure there was somebody out there who would enforce the law.”
But that divided responsibility and an apparent lack of coordination has also led to some confusion.
A 2014 campaign committee that hoped to overturn a law allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice (but never qualified for the ballot) owes more than $42,000 in fines, according to the secretary of state. Treasurer John Fugatt said the committee had paid off its fine to the FPPC: “My understanding is that the secretary of state fees are then waived once an FPPC agreement is reached. Not sure why these are still showing as due.”
Similarly, the secretary of state’s list shows that unsuccessful Assembly candidate Robert Bernosky, a Hollister Republican, owes more than $34,000 from a campaign in 2012. But his attorney Harmeet Dhillon said Bernosky paid a $2,500 fine to the FPPC and was never notified that his name sat on a list of outstanding fines: “If the secretary of state is defaming people with nonsense like this, that just underscores the incompetence of the office.”
For the record: This story was updated on April 26, 2021 to add information about the secretary of state waiving Judge Lichtblau’s fines. It was updated on May 4, 2021 to reflect the secretary of state acknowledging Judge McCracken was fined in error. It was updated on Aug. 13 to add information about the secretary of state waiving Judge Rees’ fines.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission is focusing on more public disclosure to address a growing trend of charitable donations serving as a conduit for interest groups seeking to influence politicians. Government watchdogs say that isn’t enough.