When Sen. Ricardo Lara ran for a Los Angeles-area seat in the Legislature in 2010, he turned to a veteran Sacramento campaign consultant to help him get elected: Richie Ross, who has decades of experience running campaigns for Democrats across California.
Ross is also a lobbyist, representing a half-dozen unions, businesses and nonprofits as they work to shape policy in the state Capitol. And when Ross needed a legislator in recent years to carry bills for a construction industry client, he turned to Lara, who still owed him $60,000 for his work on the campaign.
Lara, a Bell Gardens Democrat, declined to comment for this story. Ross said their relationship goes back at least 15 years, long before Lara ever ran for office.
“We have a personal friendship,” Ross said. “I would have asked Ricardo to carry (the bills) whether or not I had worked on his campaign.”
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Ross’ dual role as both a campaign consultant who helps legislative candidates get elected and a lobbyist who is paid by outside interests to sway legislators’ votes is getting fresh scrutiny. Last week, the state’s political watchdog announced that Ross had violated California’s lobbying laws and had agreed to pay a $5,000 fine and forgive $160,000 of debt owed him by two legislators for campaign work.
The proposed settlement between Ross and the Fair Political Practices Commission says Ross’ “violations are potentially very serious because of the opportunity for improper influence inherent in the situation where a state legislator owes a large debt to a lobbyist.”
Two legislators have been indebted to Ross for years, the FPPC settlement said. The document cited the $60,000 Lara has owed him since 2011 and a $100,000 debt Ross carried for nearly six years for outgoing Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino.
A search of campaign finance records shows Lara and Fong are not the only legislators who owe Ross money. At least four others do, too, according to campaign statements covering activity through Oct. 18. All of them are Democratic assemblymen: Luis Alejo of Watsonville, Ian Calderon of Whittier, Roger Dickinson of Sacramento and Adam Gray of Merced.
Their debts are not part of the FPPC action, and commission spokesman Jay Wierenga said in an email that Lara and Fong’s debts are “the only cases with sufficient evidence to support the claims of violations.”
Ross said he sent Alejo a letter in October, forgiving all his debt, although Alejo’s Oct. 18 campaign statement shows he owed Ross $33,000.
Sacramento is full of people who work multiple angles of the political business to sway elections, influence officials and benefit the interest groups that pay them. Lobbyists run huge independent expenditure campaigns for clients who want to shape elections. Unions spend big to help their preferred candidates. Consultants connect corporate clients with lawmakers through donations, receptions and industry tours. Political strategists are paid to elect candidates and advise business and labor clients. All of them have interests in how those legislators vote.
What makes Ross unusual is that he works directly on the campaigns of legislative candidates and also registers as a lobbyist who seeks votes from the Legislature. A registered lobbyist must disclose who’s paying him, how much and what bills he’s trying to influence.
“I have those two roles because other people who influence policy and who play roles in campaigns don’t register themselves as lobbyists. I’m the only one who actually does that,” said Ross, who has deep ties to the labor movement stemming from his days as an aide to farmworker icon Cesar Chavez.
“Do you think it gives me an in that is different in any way from others who (use) campaign contributions in order to have an in?”
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who sits on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said Ross’ transparency doesn’t eliminate potential concerns about the intersections in his professional relationships. “There are many people in Sacramento and in every city hall across the nation who have some dual role, and it’s under cover of darkness. But that doesn’t mean that just because his is out in the open it’s not a conflict,” she said.
“On the one hand you are working to get people elected, and on the other you are asking them for favors,” Levinson said.
Though California law allows people to work in both businesses simultaneously, Ross ran into trouble because of the debt he carried for Lara and Fong. California’s Political Reform Act forbids lobbyists from placing public officials under personal obligation, including financial debt. The FPPC’s action against Ross marks the first time the state’s political watchdog has enforced the rule.
Lara and Fong accrued their debts to Ross because their contract with him called for paying a bonus after winning their elections, the FPPC settlement says. Fong won his race in 2008, and paid Ross $25,000 of the $125,000 he owed, according to the document. Lara won his election in 2010. He paid Ross $30,000 of the $90,000 he owed.
Over the ensuing years, Ross did not make sufficient effort to collect the remaining debt, the FPPC settlement says, and was therefore placing the lawmakers “under personal obligation to him.”
The settlement says Ross believed he was acting legally based on FPPC opinions from 1977 and 2006. But in the 2006 case, the settlement says, Ross was actively seeking repayment of the debt, while in the cases of Fong and Lara he was not.
Most of the politicians indebted to Ross didn’t want to talk to The Bee about it. Fong, Alejo, Calderon and Gray declined to comment or did not return calls for this story.
Dickinson said the $20,000 he owes Ross never influenced his votes. During four years in the Legislature, Dickinson said, he could remember only a handful of times that Ross lobbied him.
“His characterization to me was always, ‘Do what you think is right,’” Dickinson said.
In 2013, Dickinson carried a bill on behalf of one of Ross’ lobbying clients, the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association, which represents lawyers who file workers compensation cases. But Dickinson said Ross played no role in his decision to author Assembly Bill 454, and that Ross was “very conscientious” about separating his campaign consulting from his lobbying.
“The only conversations he and I had about that bill were after I agreed to carry it,” Dickinson said. “He had a client, but he never tried to influence me to do something for his client.”
Alejo, who has owed Ross as much as $59,000 since taking office in 2010, was among a handful of Democrats who didn’t vote for a workers’ compensation bill in 2012 that was opposed by the attorneys association Ross represents.
Lara carried two bills – one in 2012, another in 2013 – that were sponsored by the California Construction and Industrial Materials Association, a Ross lobbying client. Lara argued in a bill analysis that the legislation would help small surface-mining operators stay in business while they correct violations stemming from their operations.
Ross said he asks legislators to carry bills for his clients if he thinks the policy jibes with their politics – regardless of whether he has worked on their campaigns or they owe him money.
“There are more bills carried by people with whom I never worked on their campaigns,” he said, emphasizing that his relationships with legislators and lobbying clients are complex and steeped in history. After 40 years in California politics, Ross has many layers of connections.
“The basis of the relationship is not exclusively whether or not I was involved in their political campaigns. It’s a subset, it’s a form of a relationship, but it’s not the sole relationship I have with people in the Legislature,” Ross said.
“There’s a million different ways those relationships get built.”
Ross pointed out that he is the Catholic godfather to Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty – who was just elected to the Assembly – as well as Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, son of former Sacramento mayor Joe Serna Jr., whose campaigns Ross ran.
Even without a baptismal relationship, Ross has a godfatherly effect on some politicians. During a speech on the Senate floor in August, Sen. Marty Block told an anecdote about Ross that started like this: “On occasions when I need to seek wisdom, I will go and see Richie.”
Block, a San Diego Democrat, went on to describe a conversation they’d had over dinner in which Ross quoted former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, his onetime boss.
“He said, ‘Ross, you’re really not old until your memories are more exciting than your dreams,’” Block said. “It was a great Richie moment.”
Block hired Ross for his first legislative campaign in 2008 and paid everything he owed him within a year. In an interview for this story, Block said Ross has never pressured him for a vote.
“Not once do I recall him saying – or even implying – ‘As your political consultant, I think it would be in your best interest to support my client,’” Block said. “I see the potential for conflict there. I just have not been put in that position by Richie.”
Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the former Senate leader, also described Ross as a helpful sounding board who campaigns and lobbies ethically. Steinberg hired Ross to work on his early campaigns and has carried bills for Ross’ most high-profile client, the United Farm Workers union. He does not owe Ross any money.
“What he does on the lobbying side is pretty consistent with the candidates he takes on,” said Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “For me, the farmworkers is a cause near and dear to my heart. It’s been nice to work together on an issue of shared passion.”
The politicians Ross helps get elected don’t always vote the position he lobbies.
Steinberg’s farmworker bill from this year is a case in point. Several Democrats from more moderate districts, including several whose campaigns Ross had run, did not vote for the bill to expedite labor contract enforcement. Among them: Sens. Cathleen Galgiani and Ben Hueso, and Assemblymen Alejo, Rudy Salas and Henry Perea.
Perea, who hired Ross for his 2010 campaign and paid him in full within months of winning election, went even further last year, carrying a bill that Ross’ workers’ compensation client opposed. Perea’s AB 1309 limits workers’ compensation claims by pro athletes from outside California.
“You’ll find, generally speaking, that people with whom I have worked in their campaigns haven’t voted much differently than they otherwise would have voted,” Ross said. “I get it. I don’t get a blank check.”
Fear of a “blank check” for lobbyists who are too involved in campaigns has prompted some local regulators to prohibit people from holding both positions. San Francisco’s lobbying ordinance says campaign consultants cannot lobby anyone who was a campaign client in the last five years.
“There’s a presumption of a conflict of interest,” said John St. Croix, executive director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission. “The person being lobbied would be more likely to be influenced by their prior consultant because they have a prior relationship and a financial relationship.”
Legislators in Sacramento considered a similar bill a decade ago, prompted by a dust-up involving Ross. He had chewed out two staff members whose bosses would not vote for a bill he was lobbying, causing complaints that he abused the power he had amassed as a campaign mastermind.
Ross took the bill as a personal attack but said this week that he never lobbied against it.
“The bill died on its own,” he said. “I didn’t do a thing.”
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916)321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.
Ross’ loans to legislators
At least six Democratic members of the Legislature were indebted to lobbyist Richie Ross for most of this year. Ross forgave the debt owed to him by Sen. Ricardo Lara and Assemblyman Paul Fong as part of a settlement with the FPPC.
debt as of
Assemblyman Luis Alejo
Assemblyman Ian Calderon
Assemblyman Roger Dickinson
Assemblyman Paul Fong
Assemblyman Adam Gray
Sen. Ricardo Lara
*Amount fluctuated between 2010-14; Ross said he forgave outstanding debt in October. ** Latest data available as of June 30
Source: California secretary of state
Richie Ross is registered to lobby in California on behalf of these clients:
▪ AFSCME Local 3299
▪ California Applicants’ Attorneys Association
▪ California Construction and Industrial Materials Association
▪ Goodwill Industries of Sacramento Valley and Northern Nevada
▪ Jack Londen (for the American Civil Liberties Union)
▪ United Farm Workers