California politicians ran afoul of state ethics and campaign finance laws 721 times last year for violations ranging from not reporting gifts from lobbyists to failing to disclose campaign contributions, according to a report released this week by the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
Of those violations, the vast majority – about four out of every five – were resolved with so-called "warning letters," which are generally perceived as a slap on the wrist but can prove politically embarrassing, especially since the commission started posting them online last year.
The division’s appropriate use of issuing warning letters in cases with minimal public harm, has allowed staff to focus on more serious matters," FPPC executive director Roman Porter wrote in an e-mail. "During 2009, as a result of this approach, the Commission saw the highest levels of convictions for campaign cases, Form 700, conflicts of interest and gift violations, since at least 2005."
The commission has actually prosecuted more cases so far this year than it did in all of 2009, in part because of a rash of improper gift reporting by state legislators.
Most of the cases the Commission initiated were started by in-house investigations, as opposed to outisde complaints, according to the report. The approach is quite different from other states, such as Texas, whose ethics panels are driven primarily by complaints.
The FPPC is currrently without a chairman since former chairman Ross Johnson stepped down last week for health reasons. Still no word on who might be appointed to replace him.