By JONATHAN J. COOPER
SACRAMENTO — A member of California’s political watchdog commission coordinated behind the scenes with a lawyer for state Senate Democrats before tentatively voting to overturn a longstanding precedent that would have limited fundraising by a Democratic lawmaker facing a recall, records show.
The Fair Political Practices Commission approved the change at a meeting last month, rejecting its own lawyers’ legal analysis and accepting the interpretation put forward by the Democratic attorney, Richard Rios.
At issue is whether Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton can accept unlimited donations from fellow lawmakers in his fight to fend off a recall election.
Longstanding commission guidelines say he can only accept $4,400 from each of his colleagues’ campaign accounts. But at Rios’s request, the commission voted 3-1 on July 27 to lift that restriction. The decision is subject to a final vote at this month’s meeting.
The FPPC enforces campaign finance, conflict of interest, lobbying and government ethics rules and works to promote transparency and trust in government.
Documents released under the California Public Records Act show Commissioner Brian Hatch met with Rios in the Long Beach area and later communicated with him through emails, phone calls and text messages prior to the vote.
The night before Rios submitted a letter asking the commission to change its campaign finance guidance, records show he sent a draft to Hatch, who then suggested an edit. His suggestion to request a hearing at the commission’s “next” meeting instead of the “August” meeting was incorporated into the letter.
Hatch was not prohibited by commission rules from speaking with Rios, and he said his communications with Rios did not affect his vote.
But ethics experts say the discussions could raise public doubt about the decision. Senate Democrats have already faced criticism for jamming a change to recall election procedures through the Legislature without a full public hearing in another effort to help Newman.
Hatch defended his communication with Rios, saying he needed to conduct his own research into the matter because he can’t count on unbiased information from Chair Jodi Remke and the commission staff. Remke and the staff tried to pressure commissioners to adopt a predetermined outcome, he said.
“If I can’t have that stuff presented to me by the staff under the watchful eye of the chair, then I have to find it…