State Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, declined to discuss his master's degree or his reasons for seeking it.

Travel gifts from nonprofit political group helped California senator earn master's degree

Published: Saturday, Jun. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Saturday, Jun. 23, 2012 - 9:45 am

State Sen. Rod Wright owns a master's degree today thanks largely to a nonprofit political organization that gave him nearly $30,000 in gifts of travel, including trips to Switzerland and Ireland.

The Inglewood Democrat flew overseas on the tab of the Legislative Leadership Institute, which teamed with an Irish university to award him a degree in international relations last October.

Travel to the foreign countries was required for the master's degree, so the lucrative gift from the Wisconsin-based institute kept Wright from having to foot that bill.

Officials of the Fair Political Practices Commission say they cannot remember a gift ever helping pave the way for a lawmaker's graduate degree in years past – but state law does not bar it.

Bob Stern, co-author of California's Political Reform Act of 1974, said he is troubled by the personal benefit to Wright and suspects that state law simply didn't envision such a scenario.

"I like the part about educating legislators," he said. "But it's the degree that's more personal and private, in a sense. ... The degree benefits you personally, it doesn't really help the state."

Derek Cressman, Common Cause western states director, said the academic aspect of Wright's trips suggests that there was genuine learning involved, not a charade featuring a brief seminar sandwiched around a day of golfing.

But the key question to Cressman is why a Wisconsin nonprofit would want to pay Wright's $30,000 tab and whether the group's donors, which are not a matter of public record under California law, are receiving any benefit from their gift.

"It's an opportunity for somebody to be inappropriately influencing a legislator by hiding behind a nonprofit," Cressman said. "We simply don't know if that's the case. And that's the problem."

The group's leadership has a decidedly business bent and substantive ties with current or former Republican politicians. President Amy Polasky, a former lobbyist, did not return numerous calls seeking comment.

Wright reported the nearly $30,000 travel gift on his 2010 and 2011 financial disclosure statements. Asked to elaborate, Wright declined to discuss the degree, his reasons for seeking it, the funding behind it or questions related to it.

Everything the public needs to know is in his disclosure statements, he said.

"I don't discuss forms that I do," he said. "I don't discuss some of the stuff that I do. What I discuss is what's on that form," he said.

Wright, a moderate Democrat, chairs the powerful Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which controls the fate of gambling, liquor and horse racing legislation.

California legislators generally are barred from receiving gifts totaling more than $420 from a single source per year. But unlimited sums can be spent on gifts of travel for a legislative or governmental purpose that are provided by an educational institution.

Wright's disclosure statements show that he received gifts totaling $14,861 per year from the leadership institute in 2010 and 2011.

The five-figure gift each year was for master's "program expenses – airfare, hotel, tuition, meals and beverages."

Wright's statements say he flew to Switzerland and Ireland at the group's expense in 2010, but no location was cited for 2011.

The institute's website says its master's program requires study in Switzerland, Ireland and Rwanda. Participants also travel to New York, Washington, D.C., and Mississippi.

Wright's disclosure statements do not list Rwanda as one of the places visited, but a Rwandan newspaper quoted Wright and photographed him with the master's class after a meeting with President Paul Kagame in that African country in December 2009. Wright's disclosure statement for 2009 does not list any travel to Rwanda or association with the Legislative Leadership Institute.

Disclosure statements for 2010 and 2011 show Wright spent about 10 days traveling with the class in each year, in fall or winter, when the Legislature is adjourned. Disclosure documents do not say whether the cumulative gift of $29,722 paid for all program costs.

The institute says its master's degree was offered in partnership with Irish American University – a Dublin-based college licensed by the state of Delaware, with U.S. accreditation pending before the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

"The program is designed for policymakers, appointed officials and military officers wishing to further their foreign policy expertise and expand their network of global contacts," the institute says.

Interim course work is provided in multimedia formats for use "while traveling, on weekends or any time of the day or night," the institute says.

Program highlights include an examination of Rwanda's rebuilding from genocide, studies of Northern Ireland's peace process, and Switzerland issues ranging from energy production to international banking.

Within the United States, students travel to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Mississippi to study crisis management after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, former President Bill Clinton and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among dignitaries who met with the class.

Wright received his master's last October with 13 other students, including three other U.S. elected officials – Detroit City Councilman Kenneth Cockrel, a Democrat, and Republican state Sens. W. Briggs Hopson III of Mississippi and John R. Pippy of Pennsylvania.

The class featured three students from Ireland, two from Rwanda and one from the United Kingdom. The institute's leader, Polasky, also graduated with the class as did Robert Wood from its lobbying firm, BGR Group, founded by former Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.

Polasky was a lobbyist, about a decade ago, for the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, representing insurance carriers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.

BGR Group, in a federal disclosure statement, said Polasky's leadership institute formerly was named Taxpayers Network Inc., whose website says its goal is to generate policy discussions about taxation, education, Social Security, retirement programs, government expenditures and other issues.

The institute does not employ lobbyists or make campaign donations to state lawmakers in California, but it has spent $100,000 to lobby the federal government the past two years. Its predecessor, Taxpayers Network, spent $580,000 on federal lobbying from 2003 through 2010, records show.

No tax returns are available for the leadership institute, but the Taxpayer Network's 2010 return identified its three top administrators as Polasky; Katherine Pippy, wife of the Republican senator who graduated from the master's class; and Cate Zeuske, a former Wisconsin GOP legislator and state treasurer who now runs an advocacy group for Wisconsin's small businesses and farmers.

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