Catharine Baker, a two-term California assemblymember and appointee to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), spoke last week before the Rotary Club of Livermore.
“I'm going to share with you, and hopefully you will come away with some encouragement that there are some watchdogs fighting for transparency and ethics in our state and local government,” said Baker, who serves as vice chair of the commission.
Created in 1974 following Watergate, the Political Reform Act and FPPC were created to administer and enforce landmark ethics law, as well as inform and assist public officials, employees and candidates to comply with its provisions. Specifically, the act gives the FPPC authority to adopt, amend and rescind rules and regulations to carry out the purposes of the Act. In addition to interpreting and enforcing the Act, the FPPC focuses on providing current information and useful assistance to encourage compliance.
The primary areas the FPPC covers includes: campaign disclosure, contribution limits for state government, transparency rules related to lobbyists including conflicts of interest. In addition, candidates and committees have to disclose to the FPPC how they are raising and spending money.
According to Baker, the recent passage of AB 1367, which penalizes individuals for egregious use of campaign funds, might have had more far-reaching effects for two notable local individuals — Former District Attorney Mark Peterson, and former clerk reporter Joe Canciamilla.
Peterson received a penalty of $45,000 for misusing campaign funds for personal benefits and was also criminally prosecuted. Canciamilla, who embezzled over $130,000 of campaign funds to remodel his home in Hawaii and then tried to cover it up by falsifying documents, was caught by the FPPC through a standard audit. Both sentences were handed out prior to the bill’s passage but is something Baker says will pave the way for more stringent prosecution in the future.
“This is a bill I was just passionate about from the moment I got on the FPPC,” said Baker. “Let me give you a great example here. If I’m cheating … and I write two checks that are just to benefit me, and the maximum I can be charged is $5,000 per check. That's a $10,000 fine for $100,000 of abuse. We needed to change that so that we have the discretion to do fines that are twice the amount of what you misspent. This is to really make the crime and penalty much more fit and in sync instead of basically a slap on the wrist … Going back to Joe Canciamilla, he was charged the maximum penalty, but it didn’t affect his criminal penalty, which we have no control over. So he gets to serve his sentence in the Hawaii home that he misused campaign funds to remodel, and he is not serving a day in jail ... at least on our side, we are now going to have the penalty meet the crime more.”
Baker’s presentation was met with appreciation from the crowd who thanked her for her service and her time.
“I had been happy with her work representing this area when she was an elected official. It is great that she is now a commissioner with the FPPC,” said Rotarian David Rounds. “She will help add common sense and reality to some of the arcane practices and restrictions the FPPC works under.”