The shocking arrest last week of state Senator Leland Yee on charges of public corruption and conspiracy to sell illegal firearms has renewed calls for campaign finance and public ethics reform in California. After all, Yee was the third Democratic senator to be ensnared in a major scandal in just a few months. But while there's little doubt that California's campaign finance laws need reforming, state voters have rejected attempts to take private money out of political campaigns, and the conservative-leaning US Supreme Court has invalidated election reform laws in other states. As a result, more undercover FBI probes like the one that snagged Yee, along with similar investigations conducted by the state Attorney General and local district attorneys, may provide our only real hope for restoring faith in government.
We also should revisit public financing of political campaigns in order to limit the influence of corporations, special interests, and wealthy individuals on our political process. In 2010, the League of Women Voters and other good-government groups sponsored Proposition 15, a statewide ballot measure that would have used the 2014 secretary of state race as a test case for public election financing. Ironically, Yee was running in that contest this year when he solicited and accepted campaign donations from undercover FBI agents in exchange for official favors. Had Prop 15 passed, Yee might have felt much less pressure to pursue big campaign contributions.
But state voters soundly rejected Prop 15 — 57 percent to 43 percent. The measure was floated at the height of the Great Recession, when the state and local governments were slashing public services, and so voters had little appetite for using public funds to elect politicians. That's too bad, however, because Prop 15 was a worthy initiative. If it had won, candidates running for secretary of state who had proven they had widespread support would have been eligible to receive public financing for their campaigns — if they agreed to a spending cap and refused private donations. Fees paid by lobbyists would have funded the measure, thereby relieving candidates from having to spend much of their time asking donors for money.
"When they're honest, they'll talk about the hours they have to spend ... dialing for dollars," said Helen Hutchison of the Oakland League of Women Voters. "And it's a lot of hours."
State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg recently displayed a bit of honesty about how corrupt our current system is. "We have a system in this country that is awful," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "People running for office, people who hold office, have to raise money to get elected and stay elected. And they have to raise money from the very interests that come before them and ask for their support or opposition on legislative matters. It's a bad thing."
It is a bad thing; in fact, it's state-sanctioned bribery. And it happens all the time, so much so that most of us are not surprised when politicians sponsor legislation or cast votes that benefit their biggest donors — even when those decisions may not be in the best interests of their true constituents: the rest of us.
Yet using public funds to pay for political campaigns remains a tough sell for many voters. There are also serious questions as to whether it would really work. The problem is the recent rise of so-called independent expenditure committees and dark money groups. Because of court rulings, these entities — which are supposed to operate independently from politicians — are free to raise and spend as much money as they want in support of or against political candidates. So even if private donors weren't allowed to contribute money directly to candidates, they could still help their favored politicians get elected by giving money to independent expenditure committees and dark money groups (nonprofits that don't have to reveal their donors). As a result, publicly financed candidates would still be beholden to big donors who help them win election.
Following a series of corruption scandals in the 1990s, Arizona attempted to deal with this issue by enacting a law that would have provided additional public funds to candidates if a contest was being influenced by independent expenditure committees. But in 2011, the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court struck down this provision of Arizona's campaign finance law, concluding that it violated the constitution. It was yet another decision by the court ensuring that corporations, special interests, and wealthy individuals can continue to dominate our politics.
And because the high court is unlikely to overturn such rulings anytime soon, FBI undercover investigations and other law enforcement probes may be the only way to root out public corruption. In the Yee case, FBI agents posed as a developer and medical marijuana magnate seeking favors from the senator in exchange for campaign funds. In the case of state Senator Ron Calderon of Southern California, who was indicted earlier this year, FBI agents posed as independent filmmakers who were seeking state tax credits in exchange for bribes.
The probes worked, but they're also not perfect. In fact, they will likely only ensnare desperate and foolish candidates who are willing to take money from people they hardly know. Careful politicians, by contrast, will still be able to accept bribes from long-trusted donors without fear of them being undercover agents.
But if there are enough investigations and arrests — by the FBI and by the State Attorney General's Office and local district attorneys — then they may prove to be enough of a deterrent for politicians thinking about taking or soliciting money for favors. As such, it may be time for a state ballot measure that would provide dedicated funding to public corruption investigations. We may have no other choice.