Imagine this: A state senator is carrying a package of bills for a major corporation. The same company backs a foundation that plans to give the senator its national legislative achievement award. The award comes with $25,000 cash.
What ethical or legal issues does the scenario raise?
That question was among several that California senators discussed Wednesday during special ethics training prompted by the unusual spate of problems to hit the Capitol in recent months.
Two senators have been charged with corruption in separate FBI investigations and a third has been convicted of perjury for lying about where he lived when he ran for office. A fourth is fighting a judge’s recommended order that he pay a fine for campaign money-laundering, and two high-profile Sacramento lobbying firms have paid record-setting fines for violating state lobbying laws.
“Money has a corrosive effect on politics and on legislatures and congresses throughout the land,” Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said after the training. “But these are the rules.”
The rules forbid a direct exchange of money for policy, as described in the example above and as alleged by federal authorities who claim that Democratic Senators Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco took bribes from undercover FBI agents seeking official actions from them in the Capitol. Calderon and Yee have pleaded not guilty.
But the law allows politicians to raise campaign money from the very interests who lobby them every day. Steinberg said the training focused on drawing the line between the two essential duties of holding office: making laws and raising money.
“You gotta be willing to disagree with your contributors,” the Sacramento Democrat said.
“There can be no conversation, connection, implication between the two parts of the job. And we need to do our best, and we will do our best, to do it right.”
The night before the training, Sen. Ricardo Lara was at a winery in Clarksburg mingling with donors who had paid at least $1,000 each to support the Latino Caucus Leadership PAC.
The invitation to the event reminded donors that state law allows the Latino Caucus Leadership PAC to “accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions, businesses, political action committees, associations, partnerships, corporations or any other entities.”
In other words: the $4,100 limit on contributions to individual legislative candidates doesn’t apply to political action committees that pour their funds into selected races.
Lara, the Bell Gardens Democrat who chairs the Latino Caucus, said the training was a good refresher.
“We feel very confident that we’ve operated under the appropriate rules,” he said of his caucus’ PAC.
“The training today was much more about our own individual behavior and the responsibility we have to act as ethical individuals. The fact is, I think the majority of people act in an ethical way. It’s just that these anomalies occur, and it’s a good reminder for us to talk about the importance of our work.”
The training involved separate sessions for senators and their top aides. They heard from a panel of political lawyers: Lance Olson, Charles H. Bell, Sr. and John Panneton, who presented a series of scenarios like the story of the legislator awarded $25,000 while carrying a corporation’s bills.
Other examples included a lobbyist inviting a legislator to his vacation home at Lake Tahoe; a legislator calling a lobbyist for campaign donations after the lobbyist had testified in favor of the lawmaker’s bill; and a lawmaker who asks a staff member to get him some Kings tickets from a lobbyist, only to have the lobbyist come back after the game and ask the lawmaker to carry a bill.
All of the scenarios in the presentation came from real examples Capitol staff have shared, said Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund. The goal was to prompt discussion about the legal issues raised by each one, and various ways that would be appropriate to respond.
Senators also participated in a discussion led by Scott Raecker, CEO of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, who said he talked about moving from “a rules-based compliance culture to a values-based ethical culture as a tool to enhance decision-making.”
“As public servants the stakes are higher when it comes to ethical issues, as it is not just a matter of individual integrity at stake – but the public trust. And ethical lapses in public service can have a direct and negative impact on public trust,” Raecker wrote in an email to The Bee.
Steinberg said he will soon introduce proposals to change some fundraising practices, beyond those laid out in several bills now moving through the Legislature. Changing the law that governs lobbying and campaign finance requires approval from two-thirds of the Legislature, but there are some things the Senate could change through internal rules, without writing new laws, Steinberg said.
Though most of the recent scandals have involved Democrats, Senate Republican leader Bob Huff said responding to them requires bipartisan cooperation.
“We all get painted with the same broad brush of integrity when members struggle and lapse,” Huff said.
The Senate took the unprecedented step last month of suspending – with pay – the three Democrats who have been charged in criminal cases: Calderon, Yee and Sen. Roderick Wright of Baldwin Hills, whom a jury found to not live in the Inglewood home he claimed as his official address.
In addition to the criminal charges, the Capitol is reeling from recent actions by California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, is fighting a judge’s recommended order that he pay $40,000 in an FPPC campaign money-laundering case.
High-profile lobbyist Kevin Sloat paid a record-setting $133,500 fine in February for hosting elaborate political fundraisers at his home with expensive cigars and liquors that amounted to forbidden campaign contributions. Dozens of politicians – including Steinberg and Huff – got FPPC warning letters for having fundraising events at Sloat’s house.
And last fall, three partners of California Strategies, a well-known public affairs firm, were fined for working to sway state government without registering as lobbyists. One of them, Jason Kinney, is also a political consultant to Senate Democrats.
At Capitol Alert: California senators' ethics scenarios: What would you do?
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.