One of the few accurate statements ever made by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came just moments after he announced for office in 2003, pledging never to accept campaign donations from special interests.
Never mind that everyone’s definition of a special interest is different – my good cause might be your special interest. Schwarzenegger’s explanation for his promise was simple: “Whenever anyone makes a big campaign donation, they expect something in return.”
It’s often a quid pro quo. I give you money; you perform favors for me.
This might come in the form of a policy decision – and often did during Schwarzenegger’s seven years in the Capitol. It might take the form of access, the freedom to bend the ear of an officeholder and persuade him or her to take an action you like. But there’s always something, at levels from local city councils and boards to the President of the United States.
Schwarzenegger, of course, promptly reneged on that first promise, just as he did with most other commitments he made while in politics. But his point about donors wanting something is perhaps more significant today than ever.
That’s because a major item on the agenda of the California Fair Political Practices Commission when it meets Nov. 10 in Sacramento will be whether it can or should allow a chance at a redo for the many victims of a rogue campaign treasurer accused of taking millions of dollars from Democratic politicians.
The answer should be an unequivocal, resounding no to the politicians who allowed the apparent embezzling to proceed.
The accused campaign treasurer, Kindee Durkee, who operated from offices in Burbank, handled campaign money for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and scores of other Democrats. There were also funds raised by myriad charities, including one run by conservative Republican Mike Antonovich, a longtime Los Angeles County supervisor.
All these people and organizations placed their trust in Durkee, who controlled some of their bank accounts. Those accounts are now frozen, leaving candidates who can’t write their own checks in a tough spot.
Feinstein is one candidate still doing just fine despite the estimated loss or freezing (no one is quite sure how much of the money is actually gone and how much frozen) of $4.7 million. She wrote her campaign a check for $5 million, keeping it thoroughly solvent.
But the likes of Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio of Santa Ana and state Sen. Ted Lieu of Torrance, who have seen hundreds of thousands of their diligently-raised dollars go missing or frozen, are not so wealthy they can simply replace money that’s at least temporarily lost to them.
So pressure is building to suspend campaign donation limits and let Durkee’s victims go back to their donors for more money. Of course, it would be up to the donors whether to respond. But how many would refuse a significant officeholder asking for a do-over?
Not many, especially when some will no doubt figure that donating double the ordinary legal limit might give them twice the clout or access they got in exchange for their initial donations.
The FPPC is not sure whether it even has the authority to allow this. “It’s being looked at. We’re trying to figure out whether we could do this or would need legislation,” said a commission spokeswoman.
For sure, the commission cannot give candidates for federal office a redo. Embezzlement victims running for the House and Senate would have to seek a dispensation from the Federal Election Commission, which is not likely to come.
But where legislative candidates are concerned, it’s important for the FPPC not to allow donors to double their influence. Especially when candidates had full ability to check on accounts jointly controlled by them and Durkee prior to the money being frozen after her arrest in early September.
In a sense, then, any losses are the candidates’ own fault. They willingly placed their cash and their trust with someone who paid more than $180,000 in fines for campaign finance violations over the last 10 years. They could have asked for accountings of their funds anytime they wanted.
The bottom line is that neither the candidates nor their donors deserve a do-over. If candidates were victimized, it was at last partly due to their misplaced confidence in Durkee, which some might call negligence.
And if the FPPC were to allow candidates a redo, it would become a major enabler of the very kind of influence-buying it was created to combat.