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Rule change would hide politicians’ disclosures

The state’s political watchdog agency is mulling a rules change that would mean dropping elected officials’ economic disclosures and “behested payments” reports from its website after seven years – effectively removing them from public view.

And in a state where lots of people often hold one or more public offices for way longer than seven years, that seems like a bad idea.

The proposed rule change would require that Form 700 Statement of Economic Interests disclosures and records of behested payments – charitable contributions directed by a public official to a charity of their choice – be taken off the Fair Political Practices Commission’s website after seven years.

Keep in mind that even in this age of term limits, a person can serve up to 12 years in the Legislature and up to eight years in a particular statewide constitutional office – though many politicians play “musical chairs” through several such posts for careers spanning decades. Many officeholders would still be in office when their earlier disclosures start disappearing, these disclosures are crucial tools for exposing the influence of deep-pocketed donors and possible conflicts of interests.

A rule like this would’ve made it much harder for me and my colleague, Thomas Peele, to fully report our October 2014 story about Gov. Jerry Brown’s extensive business dealings, or my May 2015 story about the many millions Brown has directed in behested payments as California’s attorney general and governor.

The FPPC had opposed a bill this year to reduce transparency around behested payments by allowing funds solicited from government programs to go unreported, but the Brown signed the bill into law last month, Consumer Watchdog executive director Carmen Balber noted in a Capitol Watchdog article Wednesday.

“A sole contribution solicited in 2008 may not reflect direct influence over a vote or action in 2015, but it can certainly help paint a trend and pattern over time of a politician’s relationships and who they rely on for support,” Balber wrote.

“Once upon a time, too much data might have felt like dead wood, too voluminous to be used in any meaningful way. Today, technology is giving us new and innovative ways to manipulate government and campaign data every day,” she continued. “We can do more this year with data provided in 2000 than we could for the previous 15 years. It’s the worst time to be taking information out of public view.”

FPPC staff will hold an “interested persons” meeting on this proposed rule change at 2 p.m. next Thursday, Nov. 12 at the commission’s offices on the 8th floor of 428 J St. in Sacramento. People also can take part in this meeting by teleconference, by calling 877-411-9748 and using access code 723284. Or, Californians can make their opinions known in writing, addressed to Commission Counsel Val Joyce at vjoyce@fppc.ca.gov, or via snail mail at 428 J St., 8th floor, Sacramento, CA 95814.

UPDATE @ 4:35 P.M. THURSDAY: FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga noted in an email today that the proposed regulation change would let the commission remove the forms from the website after seven years “but will not require us to do so. It will be based on a ‘as-needed’ basis, which gets to section 81009 (g) which states that we (or any agency) may remove the form for space-saving or technical purposes as long as an original is still available.”

“And as for behested payment reports, we put them online as part of our goal and attempt to provide disclosure, and to provide meaningful and timely information,” he said. “As for why only certain ones are posted with us right now, it’s been a matter of practicality and labor availability.”

Wierenga said the FPPC’s goal “is to increase transparency through technology, and the new e-filing will do so. It’s also a goal to provide meaningful, current, timely information that matters most to most people, especially before an election.”

I replied that I didn’t understand why the FPPC, once it already has the Form 700s and behested payments information online, would take them down.

Wierenga replied that the commission’s staff in reworking its website found it had more than 300,000 PDF documents and began considering “what makes common sense in balancing the public’s right to know with privacy concerns, possibly outdated information, etc.” The proposed change would give staff some flexibility rather than having to go to the commission for approval, he said, and since the agency already goes beyond the letter of state law by not only retaining records for seven years but making them available online, “we figured it’s just consistent at this point to keep the time frame the same.”

“Once e-filing is the norm, and fewer and fewer forms come in to our offices physically, taking up time to scan and space to store –, yes, you’re right, we can and probably will re-visit the issue,” he said. “And there are obviously no plans for someone to sit at a computer in a few years to start deleting information at seven years and one minute and counting. We already go above and beyond what’s statutorily required… so there’s no reason to think, and under the current Chair’s direction, no movement to do anything other than streamline, make more efficient, look for ways to improve technology and disclosure, etc.”

UPDATE @ 10:10 TUESDAY 11/10: The FPPC staff has withdrawn the proposed rule change.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.