As Julie Lythcott-Haims prepares to challenge a recent Fair Political Practice Commission determination that would limit her speaking engagements, she is finding key allies, including the commission's former chair.
Lythcott-Haims, an author who was elected to the Palo Alto City Council last year, is scheduled to make her case to the commission at its next meeting on June 15. She and her attorneys are requesting that the commission reverse the recommendations that FPPC's legal staff made in an April 7 advice letter.
The agency, which serves as California's political watchdog, had informed Lythcott-Haims in the letter last month that she may not accept payment for any public speaking engagement if income from these engagements exceeds 50% of the business's income in the 12 months prior to the engagement. The agency also concluded that she may not accept payment for a speaking engagement if more than 50% of the hours spent on this business is "devoted to the preparation and/or delivery of speeches prior to the speaking engagement."
"Moving forward, she will only be able to receive compensation for speeches and other public talks so long as speech making is not the predominant activity of her business," the letter from FPPC General Counsel Dave Bainbridge and Assistant General Counsel Brian Lau wrote.
Lythcott-Haims, a bestselling author who has published three books in the past decade, took issue with the ruling, arguing that the law banning public officials from receiving honorariums was intended to target corruption and that her speaking engagements which pertain to subjects such as education, parenting and racial identity — have nothing to do with her public business. [She told this news organization in an interview last month that she when she was planning to run last August she was advised by an attorney that the FPPC regulations on honorariums would not apply to her. Once she was elected, she conferred with the city attorney's office and decided to seek FPPC's guidance.
"I knew the question had to be answered," Lythcott-Haims said. "I knew the FPPC regulation might apply to someone like me."
She said in a statement Friday that she was "disappointed that the FPPC has initially interpreted this rule so narrowly that a business such as mine, which is completely unrelated to my service to the City of Palo Alto, may now force me to choose between serving the City and continuing my longstanding business."
"The issue is now going to be considered by the full Commission who will hopefully apply some common sense to this rule, which was never intended to apply to sources of income outside the City," Lythcott-Haims said. "Such income isn't even required to be listed on my required financial disclosure forms."
Gary Winuk, the attorney who is representing Lythcott-Haims in the FPPC challenge, argued in a May 15 letter to the commission that Lythcott-Haims has a "longstanding, bona fide business that predates her public service."
"The payments she received for her book talks and workshops are based on the specialized expertise she has developed in the course of her extensive research and publication of three books," Winuk wrote. "These book talks and workshops are completely unrelated to her service on the Palo Alto City Council and do not in any way trigger the potential harms against which the Honorarium ban seeks to protect. Thus, her book talks and workshops/seminars should not be considered 'speeches' and, therefore, the making of 'speeches' should not be considered the predominant activity of her business and should not be prohibited under the Honorarium rules."
To reverse the advice letter, Lythcott-Haims needs to persuade the five-member commission, which meets monthly. She was scheduled to make her case at the commission's May 18 meeting but the meeting was canceled and she is now on the June 15 agenda.
Meanwhile, she has found several key allies. One is Anne Ravel, former chair of the FPPC board. Ravel wrote in her letter to the FPPC that the agency's interpretation of honorarium rules "makes no sense whatsoever."
"If she is receiving money from her constituents for speeches and writings, then certainly there can be a conflict of interest which should be disclosed and should not be permissible," Ravel wrote in a May 13 letter. "But when the money received by an elected official is not earned in her jurisdiction and is the way that she supports her family — there is no conflict and no rational reason to find her in violation of her obligations as an elected local official by the California FPPC."
The League of California Cities, which has a special committee devoted to FPPC issues, also weighed in on Lythcott-Haims' behalf. Rebecca L. Moon, who chairs the League of California Cities FPPC Committee, wrote in a letter to the FPPC that for many, being on the City Council provides very little pay.
"As such, council members — who are increasingly coming from diverse economic backgrounds — must often continue their professions while serving as elected officials," Moon wrote.
The League of Cities committee recommended that the watchdog agency refine its definitions of "speech given" and "predominant activity" to retain the purpose of the honorarium ban (avoiding potential for corruption) while ensuring that those who want to participate in government can earn a living and that city councils reflect their communities, the letter states.
The California Political Attorneys Association, a nonprofit that focuses on campaign and election laws, also submitted a letter in support of Lythcott-Haims. The organization recommended that the FPPC revise its regulations so that honorarium would only be limited for payments for speeches from those who live or do business in the public official's jurisdictions, which the group argued would be consistent with other financial interest reporting and conflict of interest rules.
The organization also recommended that the definition of "speech given" should not apply to bona fide businesses in which speeches are "part of a longstanding business and integral to the business activities."
"Situations such as Ms. Lythcott-Haims demonstrate the need to refine the interpretation of the terms 'speech given' and/or 'predominant activity' to preserve the purpose of the honorarium ban — avoiding the potential for corruption by prohibiting payments to candidates and public officials by those who have business before their public entities — while preserving the rights of those to participate in government while earning a living," CPAA President Ashlee Titus wrote.
Lythcott-Haims acknowledged in her statement the support she has received for her position from various groups and officials.
"Once I receive the final word from the FPPC on this issue I will decide whether I am able to continue to serve," Lythcott-Haims said.
Editor's note: This story had been modified to clarify that it was the city attorney who advised Lythcott-Haims that the FPPC regulation might apply after she won a council seat.