When most people think of Watergate, they likely think of the hotel break-in, the Saturday Night Massacre, or the Nixon tapes. But few know that, at its heart, Watergate was a campaign finance scandal. The Watergate Hotel burglars were paid with campaign funds, and the subsequent investigation uncovered millions in illegal payments to the Nixon White House by corporations—some of which arrived in bags of cash. After President Nixon’s resignation, Congress created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to protect democracy by ensuring that illegal campaign donations are kept in check.
In 2013, Ann Ravel was appointed as one of six FEC commissioners by President Obama. Ravel, who earned her B.A. from Cal (’70) and her J.D. from UC Hastings, quickly learned that the commission was mired in a partisan stalemate. In her view, it was not carrying out its mission. Last year, citing this dysfunction, Ravel resigned. In her resignation letter to President Trump, she decried the influence of dark money in politics and implored the president to remember his rebukes of corporate “puppets” during his campaign. She has yet to receive a reply.
Ravel is now a lecturer at Berkeley Law, and she appears in Dark Money, a new Kimberly Reed (B.A.)-directed documentary about Montana’s fight against corrupt campaign finance. Reporter Coby McDonald spoke with Ravel about FEC dysfunction and influence of dark money on American politics. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you arrived at the FEC in 2013, what did you hope to accomplish?
I thought in a very naïve way that all it would require was for me to show my good faith and intentions to work across the aisle and be willing to compromise. I thought if I did that I would be able to get some agreement from the other commissioners on issues that I thought were important, primarily disclosure.
I think that the mission of the FEC is so incredibly important in this political system and for the integrity of the vote in our democracy. But it did seem that others perhaps didn’t share my view on that.
How is the FEC supposed to function?
The commission was set up to have six commissioners with no more than three members of one political party. The purpose of having it that way was to ensure that it wouldn’t be used for political purposes by one party against another. So it requires four votes to do just about anything of substance at the FEC. When a vote is three to three, a stalemate, the matter is closed and essentially dismissed. There were often differences of opinion and it would be difficult to get four votes on many things, but for many years there were almost no stalemates whatsoever. Over the last ten years, things have changed radically in that respect. The number of deadlocks have increased exponentially.
My understanding is that, sometime around 2005, it was the suggestion of Don McGahn (who is presently the White House counsel) to Senator Mitch McConnell that if he appointed three Republican commissioners, and if they all knew to vote in lockstep on everything, that they would be able to assure that nothing would get done at the commission. And that’s exactly what they did. McGahn was appointed along with two other Republicans. From that time forward they have voted together and have not crossed party lines. There is an increased lack of willingness of even one Republican to vote to investigate a case.
Wouldn’t it be in the interest of both parties to have fair elections?
Sometimes unfair elections are to the benefit of a particular party.
What do you believe was the motivation of the Republican commissioners to shut down potential investigations?
When I first arrived at the commission, I was perhaps more charitable than I am now. Back then I thought it was ideological. They were not going to do any enforcement of what they felt were loose regulations. As time went on, however, the view that I ultimately came to hold was that they understood that most of these cases before the commission were groups that were giving money to Republican candidates. So there was clearly a partisan aspect to what they were doing. Chairman Lee Goodman actually said that he held up cases and would not consider them because he felt that most of them were filed complaints against Republican organizations. It would be like a judge saying “more of the criminal defendants that have come before me are men, and I feel it’s discriminatory against men, so I just can’t hear any cases against men anymore.” It’s just crazy. It’s crazy.
Where do the cases that come before the FEC come from? Is there any possibility that they could be in some way biased against Republicans?
Absolutely. The cases have come primarily from watchdog groups, and most of those groups are on the liberal side. However, they have also brought cases against Democratic committees. In fact, we had a case during the primary for the 2016 election that was brought by one of those groups against the Hillary Clinton campaign. The Democrats on the commission voted to investigate it. The Republicans voted to dismiss the case entirely.
Because they believed that such a case could create a precedent that might ultimately hurt their party more?
But the Democrats also benefit politically from the influx of corporate money. Why do you believe that the Democrats on the FEC appear more interested in regulating corporate cash in campaigns?
There is no question that dark money and money from independent sources is a benefit to Democrats as well. But I truly believe that for the most part the Democrats on the FEC—and people could say I’m jaundiced about this—were more concerned about doing the work of the commission as Congress intended it.
The picture you’re painting is of an FEC split between people operating in good faith, or at least in the spirit of the commission, and others trying to undermine the function of the commission, as if fundamentally they don’t believe in its mission.
I think that is an incredibly accurate depiction of what I ultimately understood to be happening at the commission. And I’m sad to say I think that is something that is being carried through the rest of the federal government with agencies just like the FEC that are intended to protect the public.
You appear in an upcoming documentary entitled Dark Money about these very issues. What is dark money?
It is money that is used for political purposes that goes to electioneering communications, clearly designed to support or appose a candidate, and yet they do not disclose who is actually paying for those communications. We have essentially a dual disclosure system. There’s clear disclosure of contributions that are made directly to candidates. But there is very poor disclosure of money that is given for independent expenditures.
This dark money issue is really not a Republican or Democrat issue. If you poll people about campaign finance issues, more than eighty percent of people think that money should be disclosed. So it’s not a partisan issue.
What determines whether or not that kind of funding is illegal?
The federal rule is that if a group or a committee spends a majority of its money on campaign communications, then those committees would be deemed to be political committees, under the law. And political committees have to disclose what the expenditures are made for and who has contributed.
Why did you ultimately resign from the FEC?
I am a long-time public servant. And my view about government service is that not only is it an honor, but it’s an obligation to carry out the mission of the organization and the people. And I was not able to continue doing that. I thought that by raising the issues that the FEC was so dysfunctional, that might change the dynamic at the FEC. But it didn’t. And at a certain point it seemed to me that I could achieve more around this issue away from the FEC than I could being there.
Do you see a path forward for the FEC where it could begin carrying out its mission effectively again?
Yes, of course it could. But I think that the only way for that to happen is if there is some other way of appointing the commissioners. For example having, say, a blue ribbon commission of well known and highly respected individuals in government and politics, former judges or the like, who would choose nominees from both parties. People who would be likely to follow the law and who believe in the mission.
The FEC was set up, not only to enforce campaign finance laws, but to provide disclosure to the public about who was behind the campaign transactions so that people would know who was spending money on campaigns and therefore be able to make better decisions when they went to the ballot box.