Following a spate of ethical problems at the Capitol, a group of California lawmakers Thursday proposed a set of bills they say will change the way they do business.
In recent months, two senators have taken leaves of absence to fight criminal charges, and two Sacramento lobbying firms paid record-setting fines for violating lobbying laws.
Senate Democrats, saying the events had prompted their action, unveiled proposals to ban campaign fundraising parties at the homes of registered lobbyists, cap gifts for legislators at $200 apiece and specifically prevent them from getting free tickets to concerts, sporting events and amusement parks.
“There is no question that recent events are testing the public’s faith in how the government does our work,” said Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat from Bell Gardens. “These bills represent a new day in accountability for our state government and elected officials. And it is one of the most significant proposals to change political practices in California in the last 20 years.”
The proposals come weeks after nearly 40 state officials received warning letters from the Fair Political Practices Commission for having campaign fundraisers at the home of Sacramento lobbyist Kevin Sloat. Sloat’s lavish hospitality at the events – including fine wines, top shelf liquors and expensive cigars – amounted to prohibited campaign contributions because they exceeded the limits of how much lobbyists can give to officials whose votes they seek to influence.
The $133,500 fine Sloat paid last month set a new record in California as the highest fine paid for violating lobbying regulations. The previous record was set in September, when the California Strategies public affairs firm and three of its partners agreed to pay a $40,500 fine for working to sway government decisions without registering as lobbyists. One of those partners, Jason Kinney, is a political consultant to the Senate Democrats.
Two Senate Democrats are now on leaves of absence while they fight criminal charges. Sen. Rod Wright of Baldwin Hills was found guilty of perjury in January for lying about where he lived. Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello was indicted by a federal grand jury last month on 24 counts of corruption. Both men contest the charges.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, who embraced the package of bills, was quick to note the measures don’t relate to the issues highlighted in the criminal cases.
“The allegations against the two members relate to breaking the rules – to criminal violations,” Steinberg said. “This package deals with practices that are legal. So it’s different. Now, is the time right to bring this forward because of what we have experienced, and what has been in the news lately? Yes.”
He touted the bills as “the most substantive strengthening” of the state’s Political Reform Act in decades, a view echoed by the FPPC chief of enforcement Gary Winuk, who advised the senators crafting the bills.
Jim Cassie, who represents the lobbying industry as president of its trade group, said the organization hasn’t yet taken a formal position on the proposals but will likely be supportive.
“There is some frustration by some that legislators are telling a very small part of California society what they can do in their own house,” Cassie said. “But the overwhelming group felt they were going in the right direction.”
Some government watchdogs questioned whether the proposals go far enough, and whether lawmakers will act to impose new limits on themselves. The senators said they are still weighing whether to ban fundraisers in lobbyists offices and curtail interest groups’ ability to pay unlimited amounts to send legislators on trips considered educational.
“I do question whether these things will pass both houses or whether it was just a press conference,” said Bob Stern, who helped write the Political Reform Act of 1974 that the new bills seek to revise. “It’s very, very difficult to get these reforms through because legislators don’t like to vote against their own interests.”
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, applauded the effort to ban ticket gifts but said it would be better to ban all gifts from organizations that lobby the Legislature. Her group and media reports have documented that lawmakers annually take hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and travel payments, including tens of thousands worth of free meals and tickets to concerts and sport events.
“Even though the practice of giving gifts may be legal, it pushes into a gray area of what is ethical,” Feng said. “So we do think this is a serious problem that should be addressed.”
The senators argued that doing their job involves attending dinners and other community events for which they receive free admission and meals.
Stern said he’d like to see the Legislature rein in the laws that allow lawmakers to travel the world on interest groups’ dimes if the trip has an educational purpose. If the trips are really about making sound policy, Stern said, then government ought to pay. The excursions would be less luxurious that way, too, he said, because they’d be subject to the state’s travel per diem.
Lawmakers were treated to more than $550,000 in travel-related expenses last year, a Sacramento Bee analysis found. That was an increase of 67 percent from the year before. Nonprofit organizations – backed, in many cases, by anonymous donors – paid for California legislators to travel to Hawaii, Switzerland, Poland, Norway, Taiwan, Israel, China, Armenia, Sweden and South Korea last year.
Lara accepted more than $30,000 worth of travel, including trips to Scandinavia and Poland, according to his annual statement of economic interests. Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, accepted more than $20,000 worth of travel last year, including trips to Scandinavia, Mexico and Washington, D.C.
Both senators defended the travel during their news conference Thursday announcing the bills, while also saying the Legislature is considering new travel limits in a bill by their colleague Sen. Jerry Hill.
“The trips are very educational gifts,” Lara said. “As we conduct business as the eighth largest economy in the world, we have to see what other countries are doing, especially in the issues of energy and environmental innovation.”
De León said he and Lara advanced California’s interests on a recent trip to Mexico, where they talked with officials about controlling the flow of guns and drugs that enter the state from its southern neighbor. Steinberg said he took ideas learned on a trip to Switzerland and incorporated them into an education bill that promotes career training in high schools.
“There was a time and place in the California state Legislature where the taxpayers underwrote these trips, educational trips. And they were justified because there was a goal you could quantify and measure it,” de León said. “We’ve taken the taxpayers out of the equation, and we’ve gone to nonprofit agencies that are underwriting these trips.”
Hill, a Democrat from San Mateo, said his SB 831 proposes capping the amount of free travel state officials can accept to $5,000 from a single source. That would reduce the perception that the trips are about wining and dining, he said, and put more focus on the research purpose.
“The goal is to try to put some controls on it, some limitations, so that someone can’t abuse the opportunity for educational empowerment … and make it more of a vacation rather than highlight it as a learning experience,” Hill said.
His bill would also limit how politicians spend their campaign funds and require more reporting of so-called “behests” – money government officials ask interest groups to give to charities.
The issue of campaign spending came to the fore in November, when former Sen. Dean Florez paid a $60,000 fine for spending thousands from his campaign accounts on personal expenses, including gas, furniture and personal travel.
With the Legislature roiling from the recent spate of scandals, other lawmakers are also carrying measures they say would clean things up.
Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, introduced a package of four bills to change the Political Reform Act. Among them: SB 1101 would ban campaign fundraising for 100 days before the end of session, a period when donors typically give heavily as lawmakers act on the fate of hundreds of bills.
The Senate’s proposal to ban fundraising at lobbyists’ homes is actually the second bill to do that since Sloat paid the record-setting fine last month.
The first came from Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, who introduced AB 1673 as part of a package of seven bills to change political ethics.
“I applaud the senators for engaging in public discussion on needed changes to the Political Reform Act,” Garcia said in a statement. “We as legislators must lead the way in complying with all campaign contribution laws and should be the first to close any loopholes and ban any practices that can lead to illegal conduct.”
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.