State commission could ease donor limits amid treasurer scandal
The state Fair Political Practices Commission continued to weigh whether to allow candidates and committees to ask their donors to give more to replace millions of dollars that is probably lost in what the chairwoman called “the greatest campaign treasurer fraud in the history of the country.”
Three of the five commissioners met in Los Angeles on Thursday hoping to hear from some of the scores of mostly Democratic politicians and organizations in the region who used Burbank-based campaign treasurer Kinde Durkee.
Durkee was arrested last month and charged with mail fraud. She is under federal investigation for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars from her clients.
No politicians spoke, but several lawyers representing them did, suggesting the commission find a way to allow them to replace donations lost to fraud or tied up in legal proceedings.
But Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, warned against letting political donors contribute more than the limits under state law. “They got what they wanted. They got access to the public official,” he said. “Access is really important, and that’s why they’re giving this campaign money. If you let them give again, you double their access.”
Limits on campaign contributions vary depending on the office and whether the donor is a person, a political committee or a political party. For example, an individual can give $500 per election to a Los Angeles City Council candidate, $3,900 to a state legislative candidate and $2,500 to a congressional candidate.
Stephen Kaufman, a lawyer who represents half a dozen of Durkee’s former clients, pressed the commission to devise a “narrowly tailored” approach to allow committees to replace donations. He said his examination of bank records indicates some large contributions never made it to the candidates.
“I think that we have only begun to uncover the criminal activity that’s at play here,” he said. “I have to say it’s shocking to look at those bank records and to see what went on with those accounts.”
Dan Jacobson, who is the board chairman of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County and described himself as “not a political lawyer, just a simple suburban lawyer,” suggested that the donors did not “make” the donations under the definition that he found in a dictionary his brother got for his bar mitzvah. That dictionary, he said, says the word means “to bring into being.”
Since the donors didn’t bring them into being, he said, the commission should find a way to allow donors to give again. “I think a formula has to be created that probably won’t be perfect, but it will be better than where we are now,” he said.
Ann M. Ravel, the chairwoman, said the agency’s legal staff is still analyzing the issue, but it is unclear whether the commission can authorize replacement donations or whether the Legislature would have to change the law. She said she hopes to vote on the issue in November. “We need to at least have some certainty for them so they can move forward however they’re going to move forward,” she said.
Ravel, a Democrat, said barring candidates from seeking replacement donations would handicap them. “It creates an imbalance in the election, which I think that we’ve got to think about it,” she said.
But Ronald D. Rotunda, a Republican commissioner, was skeptical. He suggested that the candidates may bear responsibility for not keeping track of their campaign finances and also expressed concern about what would happen if candidates eventually got some of their money back. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we try to change the law for a particular case,” he said.
Dennis White, who has taken over as treasurer of the Riverside County Democratic Central Committee, drove two hours to the hearing to relay his worries about how he will file required paperwork since he has no access to the account information held for the committee by Durkee’s firm. “They had full control over our banking,” he said. “We didn’t even know what our checking account number was.”
He said that Durkee charged low rates to handle the complex paperwork: just $25 a month for Democratic clubs and $250 for his committee. “It’s totally baffling. She had a good reputation,” he said, expressing dismay at what happened. “This is nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.”
Now he has the responsibility for filing accurate reports. “We’re never going to let somebody else take that bank account,” he said. “I have to become the expert.”
The Riverside Democrats thought they had $10,300, but bank records show $4,500, and that money is now tied up in a legal proceeding in Los Angeles County Superior Court. “If we ever see that money again, we’ll be really lucky, and if we do, it’ll be cents on the dollar,” White said.
After he addressed the commissioners, White huddled with an agency official who he said advised him to start over with a new committee and a new name. “We’ll have to be the Riverside County Democratic Central Committee dash A or something,” he said.
-- John Hoeffel
Photo: Dennis White, treasurer of the Riverside County Democratic Central Committee, appeared at the state Fair Political Practices Commission hearing in Los Angeles on Thursday. Credit: John Hoeffel / Los Angeles Times