New Focus on Elected Officials Who Fundraise for Charities

New Focus on Elected Officials Who Fundraise for Charities
Helping local charities and community groups raise funds has long been standard practice for politicians – some would even say that supporting local charities is a core part of an elected official’s job.  Whether raising funds for an annual holiday toy drive, to build a school playground, or to underwrite a public forum on homelessness, elected officials significantly impact their communities when they ask private parties to pay for these types of events.

     However, these fundraising activities can also raise ethical questions.  For example, is a County Supervisor more likely to renew a government contract if the contractor is an annual sponsor of the supervisor’s affordable housing forum?  Is a property owner donating to a school playground because it benefits the neighborhood, or to convince a City Councilperson to look more kindly on her real estate project when it comes before the Council?

Current law requires state and local elected officials to publicly disclose when they raise money for a charity or civic project on reports known as “Behested Donation reports” (because they apply to donations made at an elected official’s “behest”).  Until recently, many politicians were not aware of this reporting requirement, and the California Fair Political Practices Commission (“FPPC”) did not make Behested Donation reports an enforcement priority.

Things have begun to change.  The FPPC has started to levy large fines against elected officials for failing to file these forms, including a $37,500 fine against former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson in connection with fundraising for numerous nonprofit organizations, a $21,000 fine against former Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas in connection with his gang intervention nonprofit, and an $18,000 fine against Richmond School Boardmember Charles Ramsey in connection with fundraising for a college scholarship fund.  In addition, San Francisco recently enacted a law which greatly expands Behested Donation reporting for San Francisco officials, and even requires the nonprofits who reap the benefits and the donors which support the cause to file their own, separate reports.  The Los Angeles City Council is currently considering banning this type of fundraising altogether.

     Individuals and entities involved in the political and governmental process need to pay attention to both the existing reporting requirements and the pending legal proposals. When they receive a request from a politician for a charitable or civic donation, they need to be aware that the link between the politician and the donation may become a matter of public record (and in San Francisco may trigger their own reporting obligation).  Before deciding to help a charity or community group raise funds, elected officials need to put a system in place to monitor donations so that they can file Behested Donation reports on a timely basis.  And all parties need to be aware that the Behested Donation reporting requirement is much broader than most people realize, requiring disclosure not only when an elected official signs a letter or makes a telephone call, but even when he or she gives a keynote address, his or her photo is printed on the invitation, or is otherwise “featured” at a nonprofit’s fundraising event.

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Feel free to contact a Sutton Law Firm attorney or Political Compliance Specialist if you have any questions regarding San Jose or other local lobbying laws.