New FEC chief on 'dark money' mission

Ann Ravel says she'll fight to out people behind secretive political cash, regardless of party

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Democrats made sport of decrying, vilifying and crucifying the billionaire Koch brothers for injecting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Republican-boosting “dark money” into the 2014 elections.

But newly minted Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel — a left-leaning Democrat and campaign finance reformer, by most any political measure — has no appetite for such theater. Even if, as chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission last year, she helped levy massive penalties on Koch-backed groups caught circumventing state political disclosure laws.

A pox on both parties’ houses, as far as she’s concerned, for using secretive cash to influence elections.

“The Kochs, they are not a problem to me, nor are their activities specifically anything I want to address,” Ravel said. “Dark money is a broader problem — a much broader problem. It’s a problem for those on the Democratic side as well as the Republican side. It’s not a partisan question for me.”

Expect Ravel, who this morning won the FEC’s top job by a 5-0 vote of her commission colleagues, to evangelize campaign transparency and disclosure for all political players during her upcoming term as chairperson. Her target audience: outside-the-Beltway folks who aren’t election lawyers or political practitioners, but are nevertheless concerned about big money’s influence in politics.

When reminded that she just spent the last year deadlocking with her Republican counterparts on virtually all political transparency matters, she smiled.

“I still have hope for this year,” said Ravel, who joined the FEC in late 2013 after leading the California Fair Political Practices Commission. “My goal is at least make some incremental change in the disclosure of dark money.”

Inheriting a 'dysfunctional' agency

Even that will prove a monumental task for Ravel.

While it doesn’t appear in the job description, a key qualification for leading the FEC, set up in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal as a check on political corruption and campaign law enforcer, is masochism.

Consider that the chairperson, who serves a one-year term before yielding to a colleague backed by the opposing party, wields little additional power compared to other commissioners.

Agency commissioners frequently fail to reach consensus, or even a voting majority, on anything more than perfunctory matters. Dozens of enforcement cases, some years old, remain unresolved.

And while pay isn’t bad — $155,000 annually — it’s less than some top agency staffers make and just a fraction of what commissioners could likely command at private law firms

Meanwhile, morale on the agency’s dwindling staff, which has been without a top lawyer since mid-2013, is notoriously low.

The FEC ranks among the worst places among small federal government agencies to work, according to a study published last week by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization “committed to improving the effectiveness of government.”

Out of 30 small federal agencies ranked for employee satisfaction and commitment, the FEC placed 29th, its score particularly affected by low marks in effective leadership, innovation, strategic management and support for diversity. Only the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board earned a lousier grade.

Perhaps even more troubling for the FEC: The agency’s overall score has steadily slipped each year since 2009, bottoming out this year at 40.4 out of a possible 100 points.

“One of the most dysfunctional agencies in Washington, D.C.,” said Stephen Spaulding, policy council for reform group Common Cause.

“They haven’t done much,” said Larry Noble, a former FEC general counsel who's now senior counsel for reform group Campaign Legal Center.  “What they have done has not generally been good.”

To be sure, the FEC in 2014 took some noteworthy action under current Chairman Lee Goodman, a Republican.

For example, it finally updated, after nearly five years, its outdated rules to align with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision.

It made progress on promises to strengthen its IT systems after Chinese hackers whacked its computer systems and hire new staffers — seven and counting, Goodman says — to help cull a massive backlog of unprocessed campaign disclosure reports.

It also tackled some election law exotica, such as approving limited Bitcoin contributions to political committees.

But on issues that top Ravel’s agenda, such as the influx of nonprofit groups together spending hundreds of millions of dollars advocating for and against candidates without revealing who funds them, the FEC has repeatedly punted.

Even when it did update its rules to address the Citizens United v. FEC decision, which allowed corporations, unions and nonprofits to raise and spend unlimited funds to advocate for and against politicians, it didn’t address disclosure matters.

That’s not good enough, says Ravel, who intends to be “outspoken” about dark money, while acknowledging she doesn’t yet have specific plans for pushing rules or regulations at the commission level.

Part of Ravel’s plan is accelerating what, by FEC standards, has been an aggressive “listening tour” schedule that this year has taken her to Denver, Atlanta and Chicago.  

“Dark money — it’s an issue that’s been of grave concern to me for the past two years,” said Ravel, who has served as FEC vice chairwoman this year. “The dynamics of political campaigns have changed so much, and we have to keep up. We have to talk about it.”

Overhauling agency technology

Part of Ravel’s challenge is helping the agency find its voice.

To a casual observer, the FEC’s website, its public repository for millions of records and documents, doesn’t look much different than it did at the end of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Finding documents about a specific FEC case, or a political committee’s financial filing, might range from difficult to maddening.

The agency’s presence on Twitter — a social media tool used to engage the public with great success by government agencies such as NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency— is comparatively pathetic: It averages one tweet about every three days, the tweets often pointing to a already published press releases.

Only Ravel and fellow Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub use personal Twitter handles.

Ravel, who last decade served as the top government lawyer in Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County, intends to infuse the agency with her techie sensibilities.

She already teamed with Goodman this year to host a well-attended forum on improving the FEC’s website.

The agency, however, will likely grapple this year with more existential tech issues, such as how to regulate political communications made strictly on the Internet, mobile devices and social media.

Earlier this year, for example, commissioners deadlocked on whether to require disclaimers on political messages displayed on smartphone and other digital screens. The practical effect: political committees aren’t required to include disclaimers, meaning people reading them can’t easily know who is behind the messages.

“My passion is transparency. I’m frustrated that there hasn’t been the same willingness on the part of some of my colleagues” to tackle such issues, Ravel said.

Weintraub, who served as chairman during 2013, also lamented what she considers the agency’s opaque and ineffective enforcement efforts. Last year, the FEC levied about one-tenth the fines that it did during 2006, agency records show.

“The real problem is that people conduct themselves out there without a serious enforcement agency, a cop on the beat, keeping watch,” Weintraub said.

Goodman says he has “great respect for Commissioner Ravel” and considers her an honorable counterpart. He’s pledged to work closely with Weintraub and independent Commissioner Steve Walther, as well.

They’ll disagree on plenty of issues this year, Goodman acknowledged. He believes, for one, that political actors should be free of what he considers “unnecessary political regulation,” and that the FEC’s default stance should be protecting their rights to communicate. 

But gone is much of the personal hostility that plagued the commission earlier this decade, when Weintraub and former Republican Commissioner Don McGahn fought openly at agency meetings and rarely spoke outside of them.

“I expect [Ravel] to use her bully pulpit to advance issues she cares about,” Goodman said. “That’s fine. We’ll debate respectfully and enthusiastically. I’m not expecting things to fall apart.”

Brad Smith, a former FEC chairman who now leads pro-campaign deregulation group Center for Competitive Politics, says the agency might have some measure of success next year.

“Commission Ravel and Commissioner Goodman deserve solid marks for trying to get the commission moving,” Smith said. “There are many, many small items on which agreement ought to be attainable in 2015, items that don't draw public passion but that are important to practitioners and politicos.”

But do Obama, Congress care?

Regardless of what the FEC sets forth for itself in 2015, it shouldn’t expect much support or attention from Congress or the White House.

Congress largely ignored the FEC during 2014, even after the agency made a series of bipartisan requests at the end of 2013.

For example, commissioners unanimously asked Congress to require senators to file campaign finance reports electronically. Senators today still file them on paper, which takes time to process. Reports sometimes aren’t available for days after they’re filed.

Commissioners also unanimously petitioned Congress to ban all political committees — including congressional leadership PACs — from using funds for personal expenses. Lawmakers took no action.

And when Congress actually gave the FEC a new power in late 2013 — the ability to automatically punish more kinds of political committees and nonprofit groups for tardy financial filings — the agency failed to create a rule implementing the power.

In separate interviews, Commissioners Caroline Hunter, a Republican, and Weintraub said the commission has no immediate plans to address the issue.

Also of note: Ravel and Goodman are the only two FEC commissioners whose official terms have not expired.

The other four commissioners continue to serve despite the ends of their terms because President Barack Obama has not nominated, and the U.S. Senate has not approved, people to replace them. Ravel declined to comment on whether she believes Obama should float new commissioner nominees in 2015.

Republican Commissioner Matt Petersen, for example, joined the FEC in 2008, and took a turn as commission chairman in 2010. While his official term as an FEC commissioner expired in early 2011, he will serve as agency vice chairman in 2015.

Obama swept into the White House on an agenda headlined by political accountability and fighting against powerful special interests.

Today, he rarely speaks of reforming campaigns, corralling political dark money or the FEC as an agency.

Ravel says she’d welcome Obama’s support for her efforts as FEC chairwoman.

“The one thing that I’ve learned in my year in Washington is that this is a really complicated place. And if it’s complicated for me, it’s a million times — maybe more than a million times — more complicated for the president,” Ravel said. “I can’t be one of those people out there criticizing him for his failure to do this thus far. But I certainly would welcome his strong statements about some of the issues, in particular about the issues of disclosure that I care about.”

Regardless of whether she gets it, Ravel says joining the FEC has been worth a certain level of personal sacrifice, which includes commuting cross-country to California to visit her family, including a new grandchild and beloved family dog.

“I hear from people now about how important campaign issues are, about how they feel,” Ravel said. “It makes me realize people are really concerned about the issues that the FEC has oversight over. They care that there’s someone here speaking on behalf of the public. That makes me realize it’s worth it.”

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