Legislators accept promises instead of cash, confounding watchdogs who want to know who is trying to influence bills as the session winds down.
By Brian Joseph
The Orange County Register
August 30, 2006
SACRAMENTO - On paper, it looked like a total failure.
Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore hosted a fundraiser Aug. 15 but the next day reported no new contributions to his campaign. That's not exactly raking in the cash.
But it actually wasn't a failure – the checks just hadn't arrived. DeVore, like many California lawmakers, is taking advantage of a new twist in the campaign finance world: accepting pledges from attendees. The money would come later.
Until then, it's impossible to know exactly who is financing DeVore. The state's campaign disclosure regulations only require candidates to report the day when a contribution is received, not the day when the promise is made.
The difference is important, campaign finance watchdogs say, because as the legislative session ends Thursday lawmakers are holding fundraisers to cash in on interest groups with bills to push.
Does the annual rush of fundraisers influence the final votes? Pledging makes it impossible to know.
"To follow the trail before, you would see the money change hands. That was your sign to see if a (vote) was taken to benefit the donor. Now it can happen after the fact," said Derek Cressman, executive director of TheRestofUs.Org, a campaign finance monitor.
It's unknown how widespread pledging is, but an Orange County Register review of campaign disclosure forms found 14 examples of sitting lawmakers who scheduled $1,000-a-ticket or more fundraisers this month but didn't report receiving any new contributions the next day. State law says that candidates this close to the Nov. 7 election have to report contributions of $1,000 or more to the secretary of state within 24 hours of receipt.
The Register found 35 cases where lawmakers reported at least one contribution on the day of a fundraiser or the day following, with the most being seven contributions the next day. Lawmakers who aren't running for election in November but hold fundraisers now aren't required to report contributions within 24 hours.
In all, sitting lawmakers scheduled more than 90 fundraisers this month, compared with about four in July, when the Legislature was on summer recess.
Campaign watchdogs say the end-of-session rush is an inappropriate time to be raising cash from special interests as lawmakers vote on hundreds of bills – on issues such as cable deregulation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Political insiders say they can't pinpoint when the practice of pledging started, but watchdogs say it's a new phenomenon.
"This is the first time I've heard about it," said Bob Stern, former general counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission and author of the Political Reform Act of 1974. He said the practice undercuts the intent of the state's disclosure laws.
"It has opened the door for abuse," Stern said. "You no longer can figure out when the contributions are being made. It evades the date question."
DeVore said he didn't think it was a problem because a pledge isn't guaranteed money. He said he's been stiffed in the past.
The Irvine Republican, who says he's "not good at getting people to give me money," said he had about 10 people at his fundraiser – a low turnout by Capitol standards. The next day his disclosure forms showed no new contributions. Money didn't begin trickling in until two more days had passed.
As of Tuesday, DeVore reported new contributions of $1,000 or more from five donors since the Aug. 15 event.
Assemblyman Van Tran, R-Westminster, said he doesn't believe pledging creates an accountability problem because lawmakers work hard to separate their policy decisions from their campaign finances.
Besides, he said, he doesn't know who has pledged at any given time. He said "it's almost physically impossible" to get "real-time updates" on who has promised money.
"(Staff fundraisers) don't report to you in real time because they also handle like maybe a dozen other legislative fundraisers at the same time," he said.
Tran hosted a fundraiser Aug. 22 and reported one contribution the next day. By Tuesday morning, he was showing five new contributions since the fundraiser. He said about 30 people attended the event.
Political insiders say the pledge system is reliable.
Robert Flanigan, an account manager for Capital Campaigns, which organized the DeVore event and events for President Bush, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, said that "99 percent of the time" pledges are good.
"I don't know a lobbyist who would make a commitment he couldn't keep," said Flanigan, who said money sometimes comes in before the fundraiser, not afterward. "The whole thing in the lobbying world is your word is golden," he said.
Flanigan said Capital Campaigns maintains two lists for its clients, a list of people who have pledged money and a second list of people who have sent checks. In California, only the second list is public.
"It's like Enron accounting for politicians," said Doug Heller, executive director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and a vocal critic of end-of-session fundraisers.
"That's a total evasion of the disclosure expectations we have of politicians. The reason we have disclosure is because we want to have confidence that politicians are not making decisions based on contributions."