Sponsored travel for California lawmakers topped $600,000 in 2015

The Fairmont Kea Lani resort in Maui.
The Fairmont Kea Lani resort in Maui.

California legislators accepted at least $612,000 worth of travel last year from nonprofit organizations and foreign governments, including lodging, airfare, meals and gifts received while visiting locations from Napa and Newport Beach to Australia and Argentina.

Senators took about $199,000 and Assembly members took about $413,000 of sponsored travel in 2015, according to statements of economic interest filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission this week. Twenty-one lawmakers reported no subsidized travel last year.

Some trips related directly to policy issues that dominated the Legislature’s agenda. Lawmakers circled the globe to study how Australia endured a devastating drought. Months after a dogged oil industry campaign helped derail a bill to cut California’s petroleum use by half, the California Independent Petroleum Association gathered 14 Assembly members and three senators in Newport Beach.

Several groups sponsored multiple events. The California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy – whose board of directors includes representatives of environmental groups, utilities, organized labor, oil companies and water firms – was behind the trip to Australia, as well as to Singapore, Sonoma, Napa and Carlsbad.

Among the most popular destinations was the annual Independent Voter Project conference at the swanky Fairmont Kea Lani resort in Maui, which 21 lawmakers attended last November.

The Independent Voter Project – a nonprofit backed by corporate donors such as Eli Lilly and Pacific Gas and Electric and wealthy individuals like businessman Charles Munger – paid more than $53,000 to bring the legislators for five days of policy discussions and schmoozing with sponsors who pay $7,500 to participate. Those interest groups, including AT&T, FedEx and the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, spent another $5,361 to wine and dine attendees.

At the top of the travel list was Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, who took $36,050 over the course of a dozen trips, including $14,348 for Australia, a $5,769 trip to Israel with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and $2,970 from Fundación Nueva Generación Argentina for a visit to Buenos Aires.

He was closely followed by Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, whose $33,413 haul included five trips with the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy. At a July golf tournament and roundtable discussion in Pebble Beach hosted by the Governor’s Cup Foundation Inc., which provided $2,516 in accommodations and food, Cannella also received another $953 in green fees and golf balls from the foundation, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and Crime Victims United.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, built up a tab of $25,606 en route to Taiwan – on a $8,500 trip paid for by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles – and Australia. Her initial March 1 filing valued the Taiwan trip at $17,000, placing her total travel in 2015 at more than $34,000 – tops in the Assembly. But she filed an amendment on March 7, saying she had accidentally doubled the value of the Asian journey.

Assembly members Evan Low, D-Campbell, and Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, both disclosed travel gifts amounting to around $29,000. Low attended the Maui conference and visited Israel on a $12,976 trip with the American Israel Education Foundation, China on an $8,813 trip with US-Asia Innovation Gateway and New York on a $2,787 trip with the California Dental Foundation. Weber was among the delegations to Australia, which cost $14,055, and Singapore, which cost $13,405.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León accepted $24,501 in travel last year that included the Australia trip, Aspen Institute gatherings in Portland and Washington, D.C., and $4,077 from Climate Action Reserve for his appearance at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris last December.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins reported no sponsored travel. A spokesman said Atkins paid her own way to the Paris gathering, though she did receive a $233 meal from Climate Action Reserve while there.

On top of the pricey trips listed in this week’s financial disclosures, many lawmakers tapped their campaign accounts last year to cover at least $114,000 in additional costs, such as flight upgrades, meals and spouses’ travel.

Kenes Exhibitions gave Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, a trip to Israel in October valued at $3,190. State filings show Bloom spent another $6,412 in campaign contributions to buy plane tickets for himself and his wife.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank – who received $3,128 in travel expenses from the Independent Voter Project to attend its Maui conference – spent another $5,557 in campaign funds to bring along her husband and children.

Editor’s Note: This post was updated at 5:15 p.m. on March 7, 2016 to note that Garcia filed an amendment to her disclosure report.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff. Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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