Politics & Government

Lawsuit alleges Sacramento lobbying firm gave illegal gifts, contributions

A powerful Sacramento lobbying firm illegally directed campaign contributions and unreported gifts to dozens of California lawmakers, according to a lawsuit filed this week in Sacramento Superior Court.

The lawsuit, filed by former Sloat Higgins Jensen & Associates employee Rhonda Smira, alleges that owner Kevin Sloat and his firm knowingly and regularly skirted lobbying and campaign finance rules.

In a statement, Sloat Higgins Jensen & Associates dismissed the lawsuit as a “desperate legal maneuver,” arguing that it was a measure of last resort for Smira, the subject of an embezzlement investigation. A spokeswoman for the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office confirmed that they have received an arrest warrant request for Smira from the Sacramento Police Department.

The firm also argued that Smira lacks the authority to sue for violations of the Political Reform Act without the approval of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s campaign spending watchdog.

Smira was terminated in 2012, a firing the lawsuit attributes to Smira refusing to carry out duties she believed to be illegal. She is seeking unspecified compensation for lost wages, as well as court orders requiring the lobbying firm to refund its profits, halt campaign fundraisers and cease giving gifts to elected officials. She wants the firm to pay damages related to the total value of undisclosed gifts given.

Lobbyists cannot, under California law, give gifts to lawmakers worth more than $10.

Sloat Higgins Jensen & Associates nevertheless conferred gifts upon legislators and staff and then failed to disclose it, the lawsuit alleges, even though Sloat “understood the illegality of his action because he attended regular ethics training courses where the laws regarding gifts from lobbyists or lobbying firms were thoroughly explained.”

Smira’s lawsuit also alleges:

• The firm regularly gave tickets to see the Sacramento Kings, San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants to elected officials and their staff. The practice was so routine that some lawmakers and staff members began calling the firm to request tickets.

• Legislators and staff were treated to complimentary rounds of golf, some at a course owned by an unnamed Indian tribe for which the firm lobbies. Among the firm’s clients is Yocha Dehe Wintun nation, operator of the Cache Creek Casino Resort and an attached golf course. The firm also provided officials with free tickets to concerts at the resort.

• After traveling to Cuba, Sloat brought Cuban artists to the United States and sold one of their pieces to an Assembly member at a “deep discount” that “was not available to any member of the general public.”

The lawsuit also contends that lobbyists for Sloat Higgins Jensen & Associates channeled undisclosed “in-kind” campaign support to candidates. If true, that could violate a rule barring lobbyists from contributing to candidates.

That ban does not apply to the interest groups on whose behalf Sloat’s firm lobbied, and there is nothing exceptional about interest groups giving money to politicians. Smira’s lawsuit contends, however, that Sloat hosted “elaborate” fundraisers at his Crocker Road “mansion” in Sacramento where he brought together lawmakers with authority over key legislation and the firm’s clients, and that he informed legislative offices which clients would attend.

The head of the state’s political ethics agency said the activity is common and not necessarily a rules violation.

“The law currently allows lobbyists to connect people to other people,” said Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the California Fair Political Practices Commission. “It happens every day.”

But Smira’s lawsuit charges that Sloat neglected to follow reporting rules for the events, furnishing lawmakers with “thousands of dollars” worth of cigars and scotch and an event venue – Sloat’s house – that all represent non-monetary campaign contributions.

“Neither Defendants, nor the elected officials, would declare the nonmonetary contributions to the (California Fair Political Practices Commission) and/or the Secretary of State,” the complaint reads. It also charges that “of the hundreds of invitations sent to candidates since early 2000, none met the current disclosure and notification laws set forth by the Fair Political Practices Commission.”

According to the lawsuit, those unreported fundraisers cumulatively sent “hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of elected officials, including but not limited to, 11 Senators, 26 Assembly men/women, and various other high-ranking public officials and representatives.” None of the alleged recipients is named in the suit.