Determining who's running some campaign finance groups can be difficult

By Steve Lawrence
Published December 1, 2001. Copyright, Associated Press.

SACRAMENTO -- Check state tax board member Dean Andal's campaign finance reports and you'll find a $50,000 contribution from the Taxpayers Political Action Committee.

What you won't find is the fact that TAXPAC, as the committee is called, gets its money from a rather limited group of taxpayers: some of the biggest corporations in the state.

The lists of thousands of campaign donors kept by state election officials are sprinkled here and there with vaguely named organizations that sometimes aren't quite what they seem to be.

Figuring out who's behind these fund-raising operations can be difficult even though California has one of the strongest laws in the country that require candidates and major campaign contributors to disclose donations online. "We can follow the money trail better than we ever could with paper disclosure," says Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes voter access to election information.

"Sometimes the trail is still illusive, but at least you can see where the holes are now."

California requires candidates and contributors that raise or spend more than $50,000 to report those activities online instead of just filing paper reports with state elections officials.

But unless the name of a contributor is revealing, it can be difficult for a member of the public to determine who's behind a particular donation.

The online reports filed by political action committees and other contributors typically include the name of a campaign treasurer or responsible officer, but there's no street address or telephone number listed.

Lawmakers who passed legislation requiring online reports didn't want that information accessible by computer for privacy reasons, said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, a political reform group.

They also didn't want to make it easier for their opponents to tap the same donors for contributions, Knox added.

"I think the treasurer's address and telephone number ought to be there, if not the donor's," he said. "There should be some way for a member of the media or public to contact the campaign when they have questions about the disclosure report."

The secretary of state's office will provide a contact number for a contributor if requested, said Alfie Charles, a spokesman for Secretary of State Bill Jones, the state's top elections official. But tracking down someone willing to provide information about the committee can sometimes take several phone calls.

Business entities or trade associations that have a high level of control over a campaign committee are supposed to have their names in the committee's title.

Also committees that are controlled by an officeholder or candidate are supposed to reveal that fact, but the requirement doesn't cover California committees set up by federal officeholders, election officials said.

Rep. Gary Condit, the embattled Democratic congressman from Ceres, formed a campaign committee called Keep California Golden that has raised more than $309,000 since the start of last year, mostly from business interests.

Condit set up the committee to enable him to raise money for ballot measures and state candidates he supports, said his chief of staff, Mike Lynch.

So far the committee has spent only about $27,000 on campaigns, mostly to help pass a $1.97 billion water projects bond measure in March 2000.

Another lawmaker, Assemblyman Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, has close ties to two fund-raising committees, the Black Leadership Political Action Committee and Californians in Action, but says he doesn't control the groups.

Committees like Keep California Golden and TAXPAC have to reveal who gives them money, but another class of contributors - major donors - don't. They are assumed to be an individual or single entity that is using its own money.

But some major donors seem to operate more like political action committees.

The California Alliance for Jobs, for instance, raised money from the heavy construction industry and spent $94,657 last year on state and local ballot measure campaigns, including $25,000 to pass Proposition 35, which made it easier for the state to contract out engineering and architectural work to companies instead of using state employees for the assignments.

James Earp, the alliance's executive director, says the organization isn't a political action committee because "most of our activity is not political."

"We do a lot of public affairs work, a lot of public education," he said. "We do get involved to some degree in local ballot measures when it impacts our industry."

TAXPAC was organized by telecommunication companies and utilities to get around a conflict-of-interest stumbling block involving donations to members of the state Board of Equalization, an elected panel whose duties include hearing appeals on business tax disputes.

Under state rules, board members have a conflict of interest if they participate in a decision affecting someone who has given them more than $250 in the previous year, said John Valencia, TAXPAC's treasurer.

"The PAC never has a specific business interest that's directly before the board" and can give more than $250 without triggering the possibility of a conflict that would prevent a board member from participating in a decision, Valencia said.

Besides giving $50,000 to Andal last December, TAXPAC has contributed $20,000 to board member Claude Parrish and $10,000 to board member John Chiang.

The PAC's biggest contributors include Arco, AT&T and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Alexander says the secretary of state's Web site should be upgraded to make it easier for researchers to jump from a candidate's report to a donor's and to enable researchers to categorize donors by occupation and ZIP code.

"We definitely have a long way to go before most voters feel well informed enough by the role of money in campaigns to make informed decisions," she said. "That's the No. 1 curiosity that voters have."

Charles says there are some improvements planned when there's money available to make the changes, but he says it could be difficult to group donors by industries or occupations.

The state requires lobbyists' employers to group themselves in that fashion in the reports they file, but more and more put themselves in a miscellaneous category.

"When you offer an out to people in disclosure, the people that don't want to be identified will take that out," he said.

Copyright © Associated Press

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