SACRAMENTO -- Compared with her nondescript stint in the nation's capital, outing anonymous political donors in California has been the role of a lifetime for Ann Ravel, the state's top political watchdog.
The former Santa Clara County counsel, who spent 20 months as a lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department, began to make her mark almost immediately when she took over the Fair Political Practices Commission in early 2011.
But her political profile shot skyward during the final weeks of the November election campaign as she led the state's quest to expose money funneled into California by shadowy out-of-state groups.
The case illuminated the Fair Political Practices Commission's core mission, Ravel said, and it came when voters were frustrated by the undisclosed cash flowing around the nation after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions unlimited campaign spending.
"People need to know and want to know who's trying to influence political decisions in this country," Ravel said in an interview with this newspaper. "Why the donors themselves were attempting to shield themselves from being outed publicly is something we want to find out."
A day before the Nov. 6 election and after a California Supreme Court ruling, Arizona-based Americans for Responsible Leadership admitted it had not originated the $11 million it contributed to a business political action committee fighting against Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-hike measure, Proposition 30, and for an anti-labor measure, Proposition 32.
The money had flowed between two other conservative groups, the Americans for Job Security and the Center to Protect Patient Rights, one of which has links to David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who have played a huge role in anonymously funding political campaigns around the country. The other has ties to GOP uber-strategist Karl Rove, whose American Crossroads Super PAC spent $300 million on campaigns this year.
This week Fair Political Practices Commission investigators began looking for ways to uncloak the donor or donors behind the groups.
"It's going to be difficult" to get to the original source of the Arizona donation, Ravel said. But, she said, "no doubt there will be subpoenas" to sharpen the search.
Her return from the nation's capital started with a call from Brown in early 2011 as he was forming his new administration. Within three weeks, Ravel, a Los Altos resident, was leading the state watchdog agency.
"Jerry clearly from the start talked about accomplishing things, and that's very much my approach to issues," Ravel said. "In Washington, the issues were fascinating ... but it was just not at my pace."
Brown said that he wanted her to be "practical, not let the commission go to excessive lengths" adding rules that strain a "lively political process." But the governor watched approvingly as she relentlessly pursued the anonymous donors. "Unmask the donors" became a rallying cry in his tax-hike campaign.
"That's exactly what the commission is designed for," he said in an interview with this newspaper.
Ravel said she is "absolutely hoping" to shine a light on "dark money," campaign contributions that move through nonprofit "social welfare" groups that are not required to reveal their donors' names.
Still, Ravel said, the attention on the Arizona donor case may have affected the race as much as the disclosure she won. Voters approved Proposition 30 and rejected Proposition 32.
"We never did find out the individual before Election Day but knowing we didn't know, and how important it was and finding out it was a shell game and finding there were more levels of hiding, it certainly served a purpose," she said.
Her work on the Arizona case drew rave reviews, but good-government groups have clashed with her over what they see as a less firm hand on campaign finance violations and gift regulations. Under rules the Fair Political Practices Commission adopted under Ravel, violators get warning letters rather than immediate fines, and elected officials need not report all gifts showered on them by lobbyists and others.
"She laid it out early she wanted to do big things, and we're always happy with chairs who want to do something big and reform-minded," said Phil Ung, lobbyist for the good-government group California Common Cause. "But on some issues, we wish she was a lot stronger."
Ravel has shown a yen for plowing into untrodden territory. She required judges to post campaign finance and economic interests, but she had to back off when she tried to force political bloggers to disclose who pays them.
It was the Fair Political Practices Commission, under Ravel in her first year, that unspooled the schemes of Democratic campaign treasurer Kinde Durkee, awaiting sentencing for stealing more than $7 million over the past 15 years from more than 400 political clients, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
The Durkee case was important, Ravel said, but the Arizona donor case got "to the heart of what my job is, to instill trust in government and get people to care about the political process."