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Common Cause Report: CA Lawmakers Accept Gifts All Year Round

By on December 24, 2013
Christmas Present

Santa can skip Sacramento this Christmas Eve. That’s because, with the help of special interest groups, it’s always Christmas for California politicians.

A new report by California Common Cause shows that elected officials in California accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts in 2012. The gifts to lawmakers, according to the non-partisan citizens’ lobby organization, came primarily from special interest groups that routinely lobby state officials.

“Christmas came early for many of the Capitol’s most powerful,” said Phillip Ung, author of the report and outgoing policy advocate for California Common Cause. “When gifts are exchanged, a feeling of gratitude is natural, but voters should be concerned how policymakers show their gratitude towards powerful interest groups.”

2012 Top Recipients of Gifts California LegislatorsIn 2012, state elected officials accepted approximately $216,000 in gifts and travel payments, including $41,000 in hotels and lodging; $30,000 for tickets to entertainment and sporting events; and more than $100,000 for meals and receptions, according to the report.

Top Gift Recipients in 2012

California Democrats may claim a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature, but an Orange County Republican lawmaker topped the list of gift recipients in 2012. State Senator Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel, accepted $15,810.80 worth of gifts in 2012, almost double the amount of the next highest legislator. Rounding out the top five were Speaker of the Assembly John Perez, D-Los Angeles; Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello; Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima; and Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas.

To compile its report on overall gifts, Common Cause used publicly available financial disclosure reports that are filed annually with the state. That means the figures are likely to be lower than the actual total. State law does not require gifts under $50 in value to be reported on these Statement of Economic Interest forms.

“At a time when federal investigators are looking for potential illegal actions by California legislators, this report shows that many legal activities raise suspicions about the influence of special interest in the State Capitol,” said Kathay Feng, executive director for California Common Cause.

Gifts to state lawmakers ranged from lavish meals to expensive tickets to entertainment venues, all paid for by powerful special interest groups. Under state law, most gifts are subject to a $420 limit.

Some of the gifts to state lawmakers included a $69.78 breakfast for Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, paid for by the California Independent Petroleum Association; $420 worth of Disneyland tickets for Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine; and a $420 round of golf for Calderon.

“The prolific providers of entertainment and sports tickets were special interest groups with business before the Legislature,” the report stated.

Long-Standing Travel Loophole

Despite the state’s $420 gift limit, Jones-Sawyer, Wagner and Calderon were among those who also accepted thousands of dollars worth of accommodation, meals and airfare as participants at a special interest-funded junket to Maui. The Common Cause report criticized the longstanding travel loophole that allows public officials to be reimbursed for travel expenses if connected to a non-profit conference.

In 2012, 17 California legislators attended such trips to Maui that were funded by special interest groups. According to the Sacramento Bee, the list of legislators that traveled to Maui included:

  • Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare
  • Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo
  • Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Oakdale
  • Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton
  • Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino
  • Sen. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale
  • Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach
  • Assemblyman Manny Perez, D-Coachella
  • Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood
  • Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord
  • Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont
  • Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles
  • Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa
  • Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego

Campaign Committees Used as Slush Funds

Special interest-funded junkets weren’t the only gift loophole highlighted by Common Cause. The report also identified lawmakers’ use of campaign committees as slush funds.

Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced and State Sen. Ricardo Lara of Long Beach, both Democrats, used campaign funds to buy gifts for Perez. Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, also used $231.85 of her campaign funds on meals and dinners for other legislators.

Earlier this year, six state lawmakers used campaign funds for a spring break trip to Cuba organized by a Capitol lobbyist. Legislators using campaign funds on the trip included Atkins, Calderon and Mitchell; as well as Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo; Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley; and Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton.

$6.7 Million in Behested Payments to Pet Causes

In addition to gifts, Common Cause analyzed contributions made at the request of legislators and statewide officers. These “behested payments” to politicians pet causes totaled $6.7 million in 2013. Ethics experts say these payments offer another form of influence.

“We call it an end run around contributions limits,” Bob Stern of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been the state’s top fundraiser for non-profits. ”From 2006 through September of 2013, he has raised a total of $22.5 million through behested payments for his favorite charitable causes,” Capitol Weekly reported earlier this year. “As a point of comparison, the amount is more than half the price-tag of his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, which racked up some $40.5 million in political contributions.”

Common Cause, one of the nation’s most effective grassroots advocacy groups, promotes good government issues and tracks special interest involvement in politics. A copy of the report is available at Gifts, Influence, and Power: A Report on Gifts Given to California’s Elected Officials.

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About John Hrabe

John Hrabe spends his time traveling the world as a freelance journalist. When he isn’t on an international flight, John writes about state and national politics for CalWatchdog.com, FlashReport.org, Huffington Post and the editorial pages of the Orange County Register. John’s most recent high-profile investigation uncovered the questionable labor practices of Goodwill Industries, the nonprofit organization famous for its secondhand clothing stores.

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