Last year, when news broke of felony charges against then-president of the Los Angeles Board of Education Ref Rodriguez, I scratched my head. With news this week that Rodriguez will plead guilty, serve three years’ probation, pay a $100,000 fine and resign his office, my bewilderment has not changed. (Rodriguez has already been removed from the LAUSD Board’s web site.) Campaign finance law can be a nasty, vitriolic business, and beware to anyone on the wrong end of “reform.”
The optics of campaign finance cloud the story. The clever pundits who have added “dark money” to the lexicon don’t think twice about the downsides of murky rhetoric, and have also successfully incorporated the term “money laundering” into campaign finance, even where it does not occur. “The [Los Angeles City Ethics Commission] accused Rodriguez of ‘campaign money laundering’ and referred its findings to the district attorney’s office.” Sounds ominous, and it can make sense: if, for example, someone contributes to a candidate a maximum contribution, then provides money to a friend in order to contribute it to the same candidate, it circumvents the contribution limit, or shrouds an illegal contribution. (This is what Dinesh D’Souza was convicted of doing in 2014; he was pardoned by President Trump earlier this year.)
But Rodriguez’s case was different in an important way. He wasn’t donating to someone else’s campaign, but to his own. That is, he reimbursed 25 people, mostly relatives and friends, for money they contributed to his campaign—nearly $25,000 total. This is an important distinction because the First Amendment, following the Buckley v. Valeo case (that is, basically, the beginning of campaign finance jurisprudence), prohibits capping contributions one makes to his own campaign. Concerns with contributions corrupting a candidate are legitimate (though I question whether these concerns are not addressed by other existing restrictions, such as prohibiting the personal use of campaign funds), but a candidate cannot corrupt himself with his own money.
So, Rodriguez’s money wasn’t “laundered,” because, as far as the case is concerned, it was legitimate to begin with; its source was simply concealed. The charges, then, were about disclosure. Legally speaking, this certainly does not clear Rodriguez: “[he] submitted records ‘certified under penalty of perjury’ showing he had raised $51,001 in individual donations . . . . ‘However, nearly half of the reported funds were actually Rodriguez’s own money.’” Illegal? Sure, but it distinguishes the case from one about corruption to one of simple deception: Rodriguez signed a false statement and deceived the half dozen or so citizens (excluding opposing campaigns, journalists, scholars and paid “watchdogs”—government and private sector alike) who actually read campaign finance reports.
My skepticism about the value of campaign finance disclosure is obvious, and the political hay Rodriguez’s opponents support the point. “‘(Rodriguez) wanted to show that he had support. … He lied to get himself elected,’” said one. I agree with the first part, but as to the second: let’s assume, optimistically, more than one in 10,000 voters ever looks at a campaign finance report (selected tidbits from journalists don’t count—it’s not “disclosure” when someone is presenting you with incomplete data), it really had something to do with Rodriguez’s election? Other factors—Rodriguez’s policies, glad-handing, his choice of socks—were secondary to a false a campaign finance report? If you believe that, I daresay you either staunchly oppose Rodriguez and his positions or I’d like you to be on my Balderdash team.
Of course, this cuts both ways: with so little to gain from shrouding his own contributions to his campaign, there was just no reason for Rodriguez to do it. And there may be more behind the case: at the time of the charges, some speculated that it may not have actually been Rodriguez’s money, and there are other complaints against Rodriguez alleging financial improprieties. But these allegations were not resolved by Rodriguez’s plea (the plea assumes they were, in fact, “personal funds”).
It’s probation and a $100,000 fine for a disclosure violation. To put this into perspective, the statutory fine for most felonies in California, including murder, is $10,000.
The optics of campaign finance and the dirtiness of the politics “reformers” claim is cured by these laws drive draconian prosecutions. This does not absolve Rodriguez or preclude campaign finance regulation, but the results too often show the cure is worse than the disease.