Campaign Finance, Deformed


The sad case of Russ Howard and Citizens Against Corruption (CAC) vs. California's Fair Political Practices Commission has now been appealed to the Supreme Court. (No writ of certiorari, nor dismissal, yet offered from the court.)

I've written about this case in the past for Reason–see here (in 1996) and here (in 2001).

Here's an excerpt by me presenting the nub of the story, from the 2001 take:

[Howard and Cicero] were officers with a grassroots political action group called Californians Against Corruption (CAC). Their organization ran a recall campaign in 1994 against state Sen. David Roberti. (Roberti won.) CAC was upset with Roberti for his role in an assault weapon ban, his spending habits, and his alleged links with corrupt politicians.

Roberti had been senate president pro tem for 13 years and was one of the most powerful men in California politics. Understandably, many Californians might have been hesitant to publicly declare themselves his enemy by funding his recall. Yet California's campaign finance law requires that political campaigns collect the names, addresses, occupations, and employers of all donors who give more than $100. Campaigns must file that information with the government, which then makes it a matter of public record.

Russ Howard always thought that it might be bad for his donors to report such information, especially since CAC's offices had been broken into and their telephone lines cut. Various officers and members of CAC have sworn in legal documents that they received threatening calls and letters. In addition to Howard's reticence to supply the information, in many cases, donors simply didn't tell CAC their employer or occupation when they sent in their checks.

Howard and Cicero were running a grassroots campaign. They didn't have the professional accountants, lawyers, and software that campaign finance laws make necessary for any political action.
California's Fair Political Practices Commission hit both men with the largest fine it has ever levied: $808,000, for a campaign that spent only $103,091. This seems on its face a grotesque violation of the Eighth Amendment's admonition against "excessive fines," especially when you consider that CAC later made available to the FPPC copies of all the checks they received.

Certainly, the fine is absurdly out of balance with any possible harm CAC's sloppy, late, or incomplete paperwork filings could be thought to have caused.
The maximum fine for any one violation is $2,000. So the FPPC chose to count not reporting occupations for 93 donors as 93 separate violations, failure to provide employer information for 91 donors as 91 separate violations, and so on, to reach its unprecedented fine. The FPPC explicitly stated as an aggravating factor that Howard told a newspaper reporter that "the little guy can't participate [in politics] without running afoul of technical violations." In essence, the FPPC punished him in part for not agreeing with campaign finance law.

To the great dishonor of the rest of the national press, in all the oceans of ink they've spilled on the vital importance of campaign finance reform, they've totally ignored this egregious case of what state regulation of grassroots political action really means: the ability of the state to completely ruin your life merely for daring to get involved in politics.

Further details are contained in my old stories above, and in this petition for writ of certiorari, which goes into more detail on the various procedural means the state of California has used against Howard and Cicero to enforce their unconscionable, life-destroying fine–issued administratively, with no jury and none of the procedural protections afforded by courts.

Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership have set up an online defense fund if you care to contribute. This case is the true face of "campaign finance reform," and it is ugly.