Friday, December 20, 2013

13 Things We Learned about Money in Politics in 2013

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy blogs here. Well worth a read. 

In Chacon political dynasty, deceit hits close to home

Quoted in this article in the Los Angeles Times. 

Montebello school board member Hector Chacon learns brother Arturo, a Central Basin Municipal Water District board member, used his name in an arrest


Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School specializing in election law and governance issues who was appointed to the L.A. Ethics Commission, said although the DUI arrest itself may not reflect on Arturo Chacon's ability to do his job as a public official, using his brother's identity raises serious questions.

"What you're doing is creating a narrative that's very troubling while representing an agency that's already tainted by corruption issues," she said.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Steinberg says governors should fill CA legislative vacancies

California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg says we should allow the Governor to fill legislative vacancies.

I agree, and proposed this in a Los Angeles Times op-ed last week. 

Slippery Slope Between Campaigns And Super PACs In San Diego Mayoral Race

Quoted in this one on KPBS. 

Here is the article:

There’s been a brief break from campaigning in the special election for San Diego’s next mayor, but the new year is sure to bring with it more political television ads and glossy mailers clogging up mailboxes.
Often those aren’t paid for by the candidates themselves – but by independent expenditure committees, colloquially known as super PACs.
In San Diego, the first leg of the special election was crowded. There were multiple candidates in the race and some had multiple super Political Action Committees behind them. That isn’t really a surprise, but there was one name that kept popping up in all the groups supporting Republican candidate and San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer.
All those groups, even the ones that were supposed to be independent from each other, shared a treasurer -- April Boling.
Jessica Levinson is a campaign finance expert at Loyola Law School. I asked her if super PACs and campaigns had to be separate. She said a lot of people would be “surprised to know that an organization that is supposed to be independent from a candidates campaign can actually share a treasurer.”
To understand, Levinson said, you have to go back to 2010 when a new era in politics was ushered in -- the era of the super PAC. Because of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, super PACs could run a shadow campaign, throwing unlimited amounts of money toward a candidate’s campaign with one condition: they can’t coordinate with the candidate.
Levinson said that is proving true only in theory. “In reality super PACs are very attendant to candidates needs," said Levinson. "And this idea of independence really is all but a legal fiction.”
Levinson says its fictional nature is due, in part, to the newness of the Citizens United ruling and the super PACS it spawned. “Because they are new” she said, “we are still really writing the law as to what they can do and we still are creating and refining regulations with what exactly coordination means.”
The key word is coordination, but Levinson said it just hasn’t been well defined by regulators or by the courts.
Gary Winuk is the chief of enforcement for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which means he oversees regulations of super PACs and campaigns.
Winuk said there are a number of factors that they look at to determine what is coordination.
"How much communication was occurring between the campaigns, do they share common staff?” said Winuk.
So sharing staff can be coordination, but Winuk says that isn’t set in stone either, especially when it comes to outside professional staff, like lawyers and treasurers.
“Sharing campaign staff can mean a lot of different things,” Winuk said. “For example, a lot of people hire professional treasurers, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re coordinating.”
The fact that April Boling is the treasurer for both the super PACs supporting Kevin Faulconer and his campaign does not necessarily mean coordination is occurring. Part of that is because a treasurer just takes in money – they don’t do strategy.
Boling choose not to talk to KPBS for this story about her role in the campaigns.
Campaign finance expert Jessica Levinson says Boling’s example is part of a larger pattern of slipperiness in what constitutes coordination. She says what it really reveals isn’t that there is any wrong doing in San Diego. It's that the idea of independence between all these groups is a political farce.
“What this situation shows,” Levinson said, “is really that candidates and super PACs can have connections and relationships, and that this idea that they can’t coordinate is really a thin idea.”
Levinson says this thin idea is allowing for a lot more money to flood into politics in the era of super PACs.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Special elections: They mostly just waste money

Here is my latest op-ed, which appears in the Los Angeles Times. 

Here is an excerpt:

There was a special election in Los Angeles County last week. Didn't know? Didn't vote? Didn't care?
Well, you're in the majority. Less than 9% of registered voters in the 54th Assembly District bothered to show up at the polls or mail in ballots. Angelenos, a generally disunited bunch, coalesced around apathy. But what does it say about us that the one thing we can agree on is indifference?
The appalling turnout last week is a symptom of a much larger problem.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thanks to Congressional Inaction, Seeking Clarity From the IRS Is No Joke

My op-ed in Roll Call is here.

Here is an excerpt:
A few months ago, the Internal Revenue Service was accused of improperly targeting conservative nonprofit organizations for special scrutiny. Whoops. Now the IRS and the Treasury Department have proposed new rules to curb the political influence of one type of nonprofit organization.
This is a significant step towards increasing transparency in politics. So-called “dark money” flows freely throughout our political system. Outside groups with innocuous sounding names raise and spend unlimited sums, much of it undisclosed, to influence voters.
This system of secrecy significantly hinders voters’ ability to evaluate the credibility of speech aimed at influencing their ballot box decisions. Knowing the source of the spending is arguably the most important piece of information that a voter can receive. A group called “America Now” does not convey anything useful. However, the knowledge that America Now is funded by Monsanto, General Electric, Sheldon Adelson or George Soros would provide voters with helpful information. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

New IRS rules re political activities by tax-exempt organizations?

Enjoyed being on KBCS to discuss this topic.

Looking forward to being on AirTalk on KPCC to discuss further on Fri 11/29 at 11:20 PST.

More from the following news outlets: CNN, WSJ, WaPo, NPR, AP, & the NYT.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rep. Hoyle draws pay from Democrats’ fund

Quoted in this one in the Register-Guard

Jessica Levinson, a professor of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and member of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, sees it as a conflict of interest.
“Obviously, it’s not rare for caucus leaders to fundraise on behalf of other candidates, and part of their agenda is getting or keeping their party in the majority,” she said. “But I think there’s still some difference between that and being essentially a paid consultant to the party.”
“Once you’re elected (to represent a district), you can’t just serve the party,” she added.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Despite Low Ratings, Obama Remains A Democratic Money Magnet

Interviewed for this one on NPR. 

Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance expert at Loyola Law School, says money talks, or screams rather, in our current political system. She says this is the game, and everyone is playing to win — politicians and donors alike.

"I think the only point in the near future where the money will stop making a difference is if it simply turns off voters, and we're not exactly there yet," Levinson says.

Replacing Filner: With Election, San Diego Looks To Move Past Scandal

Quoted in this one re the mayoral race in San Diego, CA. 

“I think that everyone wants to be the anti-Filner,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in ethics and governmental reform. “You show that every aspect of your life is open and that you don’t perform sexual assaults.”


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Nonprofits tied to legislators collect cash out of public view

Quoted in this article in the Los Angeles Times. 

SACRAMENTO — A federal allegation that state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon tried to hide a $25,000 bribe in a charity run by his brother has shed light on the use of nonprofits by California legislators to collect cash out of public view.
Some nonprofits, set up with the stated purpose of aiding a charitable or social cause, are also being used to benefit an elected official's career, public image or personal finances, say advocates for open government.
Several current and former California politicians or their relatives have established nonprofits in recent years. Some spent more money on travel, meals or entertainment than on direct assistance to their causes, according to their tax filings.
"This has become a huge loophole," a way to skirt campaign finance laws, said Jessica Levinson, an elections law professor at Loyola Law School.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Revealed: Obama's record-breaking effort to tap wealthy donors for cash

Quoted in this article in the Guardian

Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance researcher at Loyola Law School who has studied the growing influence of wealthy donors, says recent efforts in the supreme court to remove campaign finance limits for individuals are likely to exacerbate the trend.
"The downside of all this time spent away from office is the time the president is not doing his job as chief executive, promoting legislation or working with Congress," she said.
"As more money is dropped into the political process it has become a self-perpetuating cycle, requiring politicians to spend ever more time seeking donations rather than governing. It's an imperfect use of his time."
"Sadly, this will get worse before it gets better," said Jessica Levinson. "In the end, it is only public outrage that may stop this never-ending need to keep raising money."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Richmond nonprofit's aid seen as front for Chevron

Quoted in this one in the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance expert and law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles, said Richmond voters need to be diligent about advocacy groups that don't have to reveal their donors.
"It's great that this group seems to be doing good things now," Levinson said. "But that doesn't mean that people shouldn't stay alert and ask tough questions of them."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Author Marianne Williamson launches new chapter, targets Rep. Henry Waxman in 2014

Quoted in this article in the Daily Breeze:

Many of those views could resonate with constituents, but whether or not Williamson can win is another question, said Jessica A. Levinson, a political analyst and law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. She noted that Waxman, because of his long tenure in Congress, holds considerable sway in Washington.
“Liberal-leaning voters — who are likely Williamson’s target audience — may be weary of tossing out a senior member of the Democratic Party,” Levinson said in an email. “While Williamson is a best-selling author, Waxman has a proven track record of winning elections for almost four decades.”

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why not a Yelp to rate politicians?

Picked up by USA Today.

We Need a Yelp for Politicians, with Comments and Ratings!

My latest piece on Zocalo Public Square is up. 

Here is the first bit:

Yelp is a wildly popular web service that allows customers to offer public reviews of the companies and professionals they patronize. Diners rate restaurants, patients rate their doctors, dentists, and health clinics, and shoppers rate their malls. But, at least so far, Yelp does not allow constituents to rate their politicians.
That should change. We all need more feedback on those who represent, or seek to represent, us. Since Americans are, for the most part, in between campaigns, now is the perfect time to build out a website to provide the public with something almost unheard of—useful information about politicians.
Modern campaigns are dominated by less-than-helpful advertisements. In the run-up to elections, our televisions and radios carry ads extolling the virtues, or warning of the vices, of our candidates. Our mailboxes, both real and virtual, brim with mailers explaining why we absolutely must not, under any circumstances, vote for a particular candidate. But very few of these campaign missives contain independent, factual information; campaigns, after all, aim primarily to get you to go to the polls, not to undertake a searching review of candidates.
This lack of helpful, substantive information leaves an ill-informed electorate grasping for answers. What is the solution? Here is one suggestion. Let’s create a dynamic website that would allow us to review our politicians based on a number of objective factors. And unlike well-intentioned but snoozy websites (I’m looking at you, League of Women Voters) that provide constituents with information on politicians, let’s promote a robust comment and ranking system.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Confirmed to the Los Angeles Ethics Commission

Happy to announce that I've been confirmed as the newest member of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. I look forward to working to make elections in Los Angeles fair and transparent.

Here is the Los Angeles Ethics Commission's press release re my appointment: 

200 North Spring Street • City Hall 24th Floor • Los Angeles CA 90012 
…preserving the public trust
For Immediate Release: October 18, 2013  
The City Council unanimously confirmed Jessica Levinson today as the newest member of the Ethics Commission, noting her extensive professional experience with elections and campaign financing. Ms. Levinson has taught election law and campaign finance courses at Loyola Law School as an adjunct professor and an associate clinical professor since 2009. Additionally, she has lectured for various educational institutions and civic organizations on election law issues.
Ms. Levinson previously served as the Director of Political Reform at the Center for Governmental Studies, where she researched and wrote reports on election laws, campaign finance laws, ballot initiatives, term limits, primary elections systems, and redistricting. In that position, she also authored an amicus curiae brief for the United States Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of public campaign financing. Ms. Levinson holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Loyola Marymount University and a Juris Doctor degree from Loyola Law School.
“Commissioner Levinson’s valuable experience in the field of elections and campaign financing is a natural fit for the Ethics Commission,” said Heather Holt, the Commission’s executive director. “We look forward to benefitting from her expertise.”
Ms. Levinson was appointed by City Controller Ron Galperin to a five-year term ending June 30, 2018. She succeeds former commissioner Ralph Fertig, whose term ended on June 30, 2013.
The Ethics Commission was created by voters in 1990 to administer and enforce the City laws that help ensure fair and transparent government decisions. It has five part-time commissioners, who serve staggered five-year terms and are appointed by the Mayor, the City Attorney, the Controller, the City Council President, and the City Council President Pro Tem. Ms. Levinson joins President Paul Turner, Vice President Valerie Vanaman, Commissioner Nathan Hochman, and Commissioner Erin Pak.
The City Ethics Commission was created by Los Angeles voters in 1990 to impartially administer and
enforce the City’s governmental ethics, campaign financing, and lobbying laws.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Will the Supreme Court Strike Down Aggregate Contribution Limits?

Pleased to join Paul Sherman of the Institute for Justice, and Dan Roberts of the Guardian, with host Sheila MacVicar to discuss the Supreme Court's upcoming decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. 

My "explainer" on the case is here.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Much Ado About McCutcheon: The Continuing Erosion of Campaign Contribution Limits

My latest piece is up in Pacific Standard magazine.

Here is an excerpt:

Shaun McCutcheon wants to make political donations to federal candidates. Allow me to clarify; McCutcheon wants to make a lot of political donations to federal candidates. The Republican National Committee, among others, wants him to be able to do so. So what’s the problem?

Currently, McCutcheon can give $2,600 per election directly to a federal candidate, a total of $48,600 per election to all federal candidates, and $74,600 per election to federal political party committees and political action committees, or PACs, that give money to federal candidates. Put another away, McCutcheon (and other individuals) are subject to a $123,200 per election aggregate contribution limit with respect to candidates, political parties, and PACs. McCutcheon, an electrical engineer living in Alabama, would like to change that. The result is the latest and greatest campaign finance question to hit the high court since Citizens United.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Investigation: LA Sheriff Lee Baca turned pitchman?

Here is a link to my appearance on the local ABC news.

Here is an excerpt:

Eyewitness News asked Professor Jessica Levinson of Loyola Law School, a specialist in election law, to view the videos. "Sheriff Baca -- as Sheriff Baca -- is promoting this product," she says. "He's saying it's a good product. He's telling his guys that it's a good idea to use this product."

Sheriff Baca does not appear in uniform himself. However, graphics used to introduce his speeches and promote his overall endorsement of Yor Health do show Baca in his Sheriff's Department uniform. "So, he's very clearly there as Sheriff Baca, not just as Lee Baca, Joe Citizen off the street," says Levinson.

Eyewitness News has learned that Sheriff Baca received a $1,000 campaign donation from Yor Health in May of 2010. Three months later, Baca was a guest speaker at his first Yor Health annual conference. In 2012, Baca reported on an income disclosure statement that he accepted $527 in reimbursement from Yor Health for travel expenses to speak at their annual conference in Las Vegas.

But does Baca's endorsement of Yor Health violate L.A. County Conflict of Interest codes, which prohibit the use of "the badge, uniform, prestige or influence" for private gain?

Professor Levinson does not believe that Sheriff Baca has crossed that legal line, but she does think it raises questions about his judgment. "I'm not convinced he's kicked over that threshold, but when we look at the purpose of the conflict of interest statutes and the spirit of the law, then I think it's perfectly fair to ask questions" says Professor Levinson.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"California political watchdog sets sights on major cases"

A nice profile of the FPPC, and outgoing Chair (future FEC Commissioner) Ann Ravel. 

Here is an excerpt:

Last fall, the panel sought to discover the source of $11 million in contributions from a mysterious Arizona group to oppose Brown’s tax increase ballot measure and support a campaign finance initiative challenging the political dominance of labor unions. In November, the commission won a lawsuit forcing the group to reveal that the donor was from Virginia. The FPPC and state Attorney General Kamala Harris are still investigating to learn the names of the financial backers.
“The Arizona case showed Californians and it showed members of the public throughout the country the shell game that corporations can play when they want to spend money in politics,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “But it also presented a real opportunity for people to try to reform that influence. What people woke up to was the head of California’s watchdog was actually pushing for this before the case and literally was at theCalifornia Supreme Court at midnight filing briefs.”
Last month, the agency moved swiftly to unmask the mystery donor behind a signature-gathering effort to force a public vote on city financial aid for a new arena for the Sacramento Kings. Under the legal scrutiny, Seattle investor Chris Hansen acknowledged contributing $100,000 to the petition drive.

Read more here:

"Justices Should Think of Quarter Pounders in Latest Money in Politics Case"

A great blog post from Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ann Ravel Confirmed to the Federal Elections Commission

A hearty congratulations to current Chair of the FPPC, future FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel, who was just confirmed today by the U.S. Senate!

A short piece I wrote for the HuffPo re Ann Ravel's nomination to the FEC is here.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

California Gives Expanded Rights to Noncitizens

Honored to have been quoted on the front page of the NYT, above the fold:

LOS ANGELES — California is challenging the historic status of American citizenship with measures to permit noncitizens to sit on juries and monitor polls for elections in which they cannot vote and to open the practice of law even to those here illegally. It is the leading edge of a national trend that includes granting drivers’ licenses and in-state tuition to illegal immigrants in some states and that suggests legal residency could evolve into an appealing option should immigration legislation fail to produce a path to citizenship.

With 3.5 million noncitizens who are legal permanent residents in California, some view the changes as an acknowledgment of who is living here and the need to require some public service of them. But the new laws raise profound questions about which rights and responsibilities rightly belong to citizens over residents.
“What is more basic to our society than being able to judge your fellow citizens?” asked Jessica A. Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, referring to jury service. “We’re absolutely going to the bedrock of things here and stretching what we used to think of as limits.”

Thursday, September 5, 2013

FPPC Chair Ann Ravel comes to Loyola Law School

I am so grateful to FPPC Chair Ann Ravel for coming to Loyola Law School yesterday and today to share her thoughts and insights on political reform, disclosure, civic engagement, and many other issues. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Appearances Matter in Politics, Especially When You're Under Investigation

Here is another entry for the "politicians exercising questionable judgment" file cabinet, which, unfortunately, continues to fill up on a daily basis.
California State Senator Ronald Calderon is the subject of a federal corruption investigation. Let that sentence linger for a moment, shall we? Calderon is a public servant; by definition he should be serving the public, in this case his constituents. His first responsibility is to represent those in his state senate district. But there is now some question as to whether he is doing that, or whether he used his office for personal gain.
In this situation it would behoove any representative to be particularly thoughtful and careful, to attempt to make decisions which give no fodder to an already-distrustful public. Unfortunately, Calderon appears not to have done that.
Calderon has chosen another scandal-plagued individual, former Bell Gardens City Councilman Mario Beltran, to be the public face of Calderon's office. Beltran is his chief spokesperson. Beltran served on the Bell Gardens city council. He pleaded guilty to misusing campaign money and was convicted of filing a false police report.
Let's assume, because we must, that Calderon is innocent until proven guilty. Let's also take Beltran at his word that he is a changed man and assume he reformed. And let's do more than that. Let's believe, as I do, that people can change and mature, and therefore deserve second chances. The question still remains, is it wise for someone Calderon's position pick someone with Beltran's history to represent him when the public already looks at their representatives with a wary eye? Appearances matter in politics.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner to resign on Aug. 30

Quoted in this article in Reuters re San Diego Mayor Filner's resignation. 

Jessica Levinson, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Filner's only bargaining chip in discussions with the city had been his threat to remain in office.
"It sounds like it's an actual compromise, both sides get something," she said. "Ultimately what San Diego needs is for Filner to step down and for them to have a functioning mayor who's allowed in City Hall, and that the city doesn't fear that if he's allowed around women something bad is going to happen."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

RNC doesn’t want you to hear from their presidential candidates

My latest piece appears on The Hill's Congress Blog

Here is an excerpt:

Last week the Republican National Committee (RNC) unanimously passed a resolution to prevent NBC and CNN from hosting Republican primary debates unless those networks halt production of films about former first lady, senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In response to this news I have three words, “get over it.”

The RNC believes that both projects will essentially be endorsements of Clinton, a possible (likely? probable? almost certain?) Democratic candidate for the 2016 presidential election, and that therefore NBC and CNN will not be able to fairly host Republican presidential debates. It is worth pointing out that at least in the case of NBC’s planned miniseries, the entertainment division of the network would be responsible for the project, and the news division would be in charge of any debates. Will viewers appreciate the difference? Maybe not.

Still, the RNC’s move is more than a little ironic for a number of reasons.

Monday, August 19, 2013

An Open Letter to San Diego Mayor Bob Filner

Dear Mayor Bob Filner,

You do not know me, but like the rest of the sane individuals following your sexual harassment scandal, let me tell you, it is time to resign. Actually, allow me to restate that: It was time to resign weeks ago.
First, let me say I do believe in the fundamental principle that people are innocent until proven guilty. You have yet to have been found liable or guilty of anything in a court of law. But here is a news flash for you: You are an elected official. Members of the electorate went to the ballot box and put their faith in you to represent them fairly and honestly. You are failing to do that.

Now, you may ask, does it set a bad precedent to tell an official to resign just because he is accused of wrong doing? The answer is, it absolutely would if that were what I'm advocating, but I am not. The sheer volume of the complaints lodged against you is stunning. The substance of the complaints -- a myriad of unwanted sexual advances -- is deplorable.
As you well know, appearances matter in politics. Appearances also matter in government. Yes, those two things are still somewhat different. When your constituents have lost faith in your ability to govern, not to mention be alone with any woman, it is time to go.

It is increasingly difficult to get members of the electorate to go to the polls and take part in local, state, and federal government. People feel disconnected from their representatives. While this is a real problem, and it is long past the time to change the public's low regard of government, I only wish more of your constituents felt more disconnected from you. Your decision to stay in office is doing nothing to help the people's view of their elected representatives.

The only silver lining here is that the complaints lodged against you are shocking. Thank goodness there is nothing routine or acceptable about what so many women now claim you have subjected them to. 

Finish reading this post on

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bites Lack of rules allow Sacramento politicians to blur private, public interests

Quoted in this one in the Sacramento News and Review:

Sacramento City Council members keep inventing new, creative ways to collect money and funnel it into their own political “brands.” And we need new rules to keep up with their inventions.

Last week, some local pro-labor Democrats asked the California attorney general and Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate Mayor Kevin Johnson’s 501(c)(3) organizations, and the collection of hundreds of thousands of dollars from Walmart, leading up to the vote on Sacramento’s contentious big-box store policy this week.

But when the Walmart battle is over, the problem will remain: These nonprofit organizations lack transparency, they lack clear rules, and they mix public resources with the council members’ political interests.
City Councilman Jay Schenirer’s organization, WayUp Sacramento, has gotten considerably less attention than the mayor’s efforts. But it blurs plenty of lines.

WayUp helps to fund programs for at-risk youth in Oak Park, and that’s a perfectly good thing to do.

But last year, Sacramento City Manager John Shirey said it was inappropriate for outside nonprofits—such as Johnson’s education nonprofit Stand Up, or his arena-booster group Think Big Sacramento—to operate out of City Hall or use city resources.

In some ways, Schenirer’s WayUp looks quite similar to Johnson’s groups. WayUp has a website, paid staff and receives big donations through the city’s “behest” system, just as the mayor’s nonprofits do—including checks from businesses like Walmart, AT&T, and Sutter Health, along with foundation support from the California Endowment. WayUp has taken in nearly $800,000 since Schenirer was elected in 2010.

So, why does WayUp get to operate in City Hall after K.J.’s nonprofits were shown the door? The short answer is that WayUp isn’t really a nonprofit, not yet. According to Schenirer, it’s a “brand.”


“It’s somewhat curious that ‘brand’ is the word they use,” says Jessica Levinson, professor of election law at Loyola Law School. “’Brand’ can certainly be seen as PR for the candidate.”

Like when Schenirer toured his district during National Night Out last week, handing out WayUp tote bags and buttons.

She’s not sure Schenirer is doing anything wrong, though, she adds, “The thing that feels a bit funny is that it is using government resources.”
Schenirer says “brand” applies to the community work WayUp does. But of course it’s an extension of Schenirer’s brand as a politician, and an extension of his professional brand, too.

Schenirer is an education consultant; that’s how he makes his money. Among WayUp’s stated goals are “an ambitious, rigorous, and comprehensive strategy of reform” for schools in Schenirer’s district. He told Bites that school reform is “a generic term,” and that, in this case, it means noncontroversial things like school nutrition programs.

But the project description that WayUp sent to the U.S. Department of Education advocates policies that are related to the work done by Schenirer’s consulting business, Capitol Impact LLC, and its principals.

The WayUp brand seems to be where Schenirer’s interests as a public office holder, politician and professional education consultant all intersect. How much intersection is OK? That’s where some sort of city policy would be helpful.


They might want to keep an eye on Schenirer’s variation as well, which Levinson says makes for a “fascinating” but potentially problematic new tool for politicians.

“Until there’s more guidance, politicians will continue to do this. They’d be foolish not to,” she said.

Following GOP cash leads to questions

Quoted in this one in the Modesto Bee

Here is an excerpt:

In 2011 and 2012, Stanislaus County's Republican Party quietly became a player in state political finance, taking $1.7 million from big spenders and funneling most of it to superheated campaigns throughout California.
The metamorphosis was so hushed that some members of the county's central committee, the very group used by state party leaders to distribute the money, were unaware.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission, a state agency enforcing campaign ethics, confirmed to The Bee that the Stanislaus group's role in pooling and distributing cash is under investigation.
News of the probe has caused an uproar in the committee, particularly among members seated in January. Some say they got involved to help their party and were disturbed to find out about the money flow.


Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance and ethics expert at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said, "We live in a system where the number of permissible constraints is increasingly decreasing."

Read more here:


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Millions Wasted on Upgrading Voting Systems

Voting is called a preservative right, meaning it helps to preserve other rights.

The ability to exercise one's right to vote is a fundamental part of any functioning democracy. What does this ability entail? For one, those who are eligible to be able to vote should be able to do so easily. Further, once registered, voters should be able to go to the polls or mail in a ballot with relative ease as well. Finally, voters should be assured that when they cast their ballots the voting systems accurately read and record their votes. It should go without saying that each vote must be fairly and correctly counted.

Allegations of voting problems abounded in the 2000 presidential election between former Vice President Al Gore and former President George W. Bush abounded. That election, among other things, exposed problems related to punch card ballots. In the wake of that election, Congress passed in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. As part of HAVA states receive money to help update voting systems. California received $380 million -- no small sum.

Now comes word here, here, and here that money received to upgrade voting systems have been wasted.

A state audit released last week found that, under the direction of the Secretary of State's Office, millions of dollars set aside for the improvement of voting systems have been misused.

Among the state's shortcomings are lack of clear and workable standards for satisfactory voting systems, lack of transparency in the distribution of funds, and money spent on projects that were not fully implemented.

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Should Legal Immigrants Be Allowed to Work at Election Polls?

In my book, the majority of people who pass certain eligibility requirements and wish to serve as poll workers should be welcomed and thanked, not excluded and turned away. Working at the polls is important, often tedious and monotonous job. Election day is virtually guaranteed to be a long day for anyone serving at the polls.

There is now a bill headed to Gov. Jerry Brown that would let some legal immigrants to serve as poll workers. Which legal immigrants you may ask? Well, legal permanent residents who would be eligible to vote if they were citizens.

Assembly Bill 817 places a limit on the number of non-citizen poll workers in each district. Election officials would be able to appoint five non-citizen poll workers in each precinct.

Democratic Assembly member Rob Bonta (Alameda) introduced the bill. He and democrats have argued that the bill would increase the number of multi-lingual poll workers who could then help multi-lingual voters who are not proficient in English. Republicans, who oppose the bill, have countered that the increase in the number of multilingual poll workers would not be particularly helpful as poll workers are prevented from doing things like reading the ballot to voters, or helping the voters understand the content of the ballot. In addition, there appears to be some disagreement as to how many eligible voters are not proficient in English because naturalized citizens must pass a written and verbal English test.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Spokesman for California Assembly Speaker John Perez wears many hats

Quoted in this piece in the Sacramento Bee

Here is an excerpt: 

It's an unusual arrangement, even in a Capitol that thrives on close relationships between elected officials and the interest groups they govern.
"It seems like he's serving two masters," said Jessica Levinson, an expert in political ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
"He may be doing a great job serving both of them, and he may not be doing anything improper. But at the very least it feels uncomfortable and improper because he is serving a legislator and serving clients who seek to influence that legislator."
Even with the distinction between lobbying and communications, Levinson said, working for the Assembly leader likely helps Maviglio solicit business from interest groups.
"As a private sector client, it makes all the sense in the world to hire someone who has the ear of a powerful legislator," she said.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Six California lawmakers took trip to Cuba with Capitol lobbyist

Quoted in this one in the Los Angeles Times. 

Six California lawmakers used political funds to take part in a March trip to Cuba with a top Capitol lobbyist, raising eyebrows among state government watchers.
The legislators disclosed the “cultural exchange” trip in campaign finance reports filed this week, visiting the communist country with lobbyist Darius Anderson, who heads a nonprofit group called Californians Building Bridges.
Anderson’s lobbying firm, Platinum Advisors, represents clients including AT&T, Anthem Blue Cross,DirecTV Group and Pfizer, some of which have also made political contributions to the lawmakers on the trip.
Those who dipped into campaign funds to pay for their trip included Sens. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) and Assembly members Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo), Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). Calderon has been in the news because his Capitol office was raided by the FBI in June as part of a corruption probe. Calderon declined to comment.
Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson, who studies government ethics, said it is a concern when lawmakers "spend a lot of time with a certain lobbyist. It means they may be more educated and attentive to the concerns of the lobbyist."

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Democrats seize super PAC crown

Quoted in this one, by the Center for Public Integrity. 

“Despite ideological opposition to super PAC spending, I don’t see Democrats wanting to play on an uneven playing field,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in California. “This is the political reality.”

Cupid's work gets complicated as California lawmaker dates lobbyist

Quoted in this piece in the Sac Bee. 

"We are talking about a relationship where one person's job is to try to influence people in the other person's position: a lobbyist representing a certain constituency over which this lawmaker has some decision-making power," said Jessica Levinson, an expert in political ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
"The concern is always the same – is this elected official doing a good job? Is he serving the public? Or is there any chance the elected official is serving himself and making decisions based on who he is dating?"
A review of legislation the California Medical Association is lobbying this year shows Maienschein frequently – but not always – votes its way.
Levinson and other government watchdogs said Maienschein should step down from committees that routinely vote on bills the medical association lobbies, such as the health and business panels.
"I don't think we can say, 'Drop out of office, or stop dating this person,' but I think we can suggest, 'There may be a more appropriate committee for you to sit on,' " Levinson said.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Tracking the money flow between Central Basin Water District and Tom Calderon

Interviewed on KPCC for this piece.

Southern California has dozens of small public agencies that don’t get much attention. The Central Basin Municipal Water District is one of them, but it made headlines last month after getting a federal subpoena in connection with an investigation into State Senator Ron Calderon.
Federal officials have also sought to speak with his brother, political consultant Tom Calderon, who shares a long relationship with the Commerce-based water agency.
Tom Calderon left the state Assembly just over a decade ago and started a political consulting business. One of his first clients was the Central Basin District, which serves a broad expanse of Southeast L.A. County. Over the past several years, Calderon donated $26,000 to board candidates at the district.
"Most people give contributions, not because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside, but because they think there is some way that they can benefit from this candidate being in public office," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in election law and governance issues.
Over a 10-year period, the Central Basin District paid Calderon nearly $1 million to build relationships with state and federal politicians, develop community outreach strategies, and give general guidance to the district’s leaders. Contracts from those years describe Calderon as providing "valuable insight and guidance." At the same time, he was donating to board members who approved his lucrative contracts — which is legal.
"The link isn’t always that direct, but I think the question is always the same," Levinson said. "Are contributions really anything more than legalized bribery?”
(Because of the ongoing investigation, none of the district’s board members would comment for this story. Neither would Tom Calderon.) 
In 2012, two new board members, James Roybal and Leticia Vasquez, were elected as reform candidates. Early this year the board voted to terminate the district’s consulting contracts —including Calderon’s.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, which works to make  public officials and institutions accountable and responsive to citizens, said the Central Basin's policy is not an anomaly.
"Sadly, it’s pretty rare to have a bidder ban," Feng said. "That’s what would prevent a contribution from a company or individual who is seeking a contract from that city agency. We think it’s actually very common sense, but only a few cities have got it."
The City of Los Angles has such a policy. And, as it turns out, the Central Basin District recently revised its code of conduct. It now states companies and individuals cannot donate to board members while their contracts are in the approval process. Anyone doing business with the district is also prohibited from giving in the months just before and after an election. 
"It’s intended to prevent sense of favoritism or sense that someone’s voting for a particular project because they are getting donations from a particular vendor," said Joseph Legaspi, interim public affairs manager at Central Basin.
For entities that operate largely outside the public eye, Feng says the public can help force government to become transparent and accountable. She notes that the state controller has started posting the salaries of public employees.
"Here, I think it’s really a matter of public pressure and I think it is possible," Feng said. "We saw what happened so quickly after the Bell scandal. And if the public expresses a desire for it, I think often times our elected officials are responsive."
But small cities and agencies are often left to police themselves. At Central Basin, suspected violations of the district’s code of conduct are reported to the board’s two-member Ethics Committee. It’s up to them to report serious violations to the Fair Political Practices Commission or the District Attorney’s Office. 
"If someone had felt that a member of the Central Basin board of directors had not been compliant with the code of conduct, they do have the opportunity to raise that issue with the district’s Ethics Committee," Legaspi said.
In recent years, there have been no complaints taken to the Ethics Committee that were found to be valid or worthy of further investigation, according to Legaspi. The committee’s members include Phillip Hawkins, who last year was elected to his fourth term on the Water District board. Six days before the election, Hawkins received a donation that made up one-fourth of all the money he raised. It was  $10,000 — and it came from Tom Calderon.