Every year, lobbyist employers shower lawmakers and their staff with free meals, tickets and goodie bags – but no one got more in 2016 than Assemblyman Jim Cooper, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of lobbying filings.
The Elk Grove Democrat received more than $9,000 in food and drinks, park passes, toys, flowers and travel for speeches or conferences last year from those with business before the Legislature. That does not include gifts and travel from groups that do not have lobbyists, but may be funded by lobbyists employers.
Lawmakers could take up to $460 worth in gifts from a single source in 2016 – and Cooper occasionally pushed his total to the limit.
On Oct. 4, he attended Paul McCartney’s opening-night concert at the brand new Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento with a pair of free tickets to the AT&T corporate suite valued at $397.50. He was back again 11 days later to see Maroon 5, reimbursing AT&T for all but the $62.50 he could still accept from the telecommunications giant.
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Cooper said he did not remember whether he requested the tickets or was offered them by AT&T. He added that it’s too busy around the Capitol to know when a particular gift may take him above the threshold with the source that gave it to him.
“You don’t keep track of stuff,” Cooper said.
A spokesman for AT&T said the company received $335 back for the Maroon 5 tickets. Cooper’s office could not confirm whether an October payment of $335 from his campaign account to AT&T was for the concert, or whether the lawmaker had used personal funds for the reimbursement.
Cooper also maxed out with the Walt Disney Co. and Comcast.
On Aug. 9, he received tickets to Disneyland reported at $460; his office declined to discuss the gift and whether it involved a partial reimbursement, and Disney did not return repeated calls seeking clarification. Two days later, Comcast gave Cooper two complimentary tickets and front-of-the-line passes to Universal Studios, valued at $478; he paid back $18, the company said.
Reimbursements for gift costs above the limit are permitted within 30 days. Cooper was not the only one to engage in the practice: AT&T, for example, was also reimbursed last year by Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, and Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, for tickets to a Selena Gomez concert and a San Francisco Giants baseball game, respectively, that took them above the $460 threshold.
Cooper’s largest gifts from lobbyist employers in 2016 were $2,469 in travel expenses from the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies for an October conference in Pebble Beach and $835 in travel expenses from the California Chamber of Commerce for a November conference in Huntington Beach.
The $460 limit does not apply for an educational trip or speaking engagement. He took an additional $8,288 in sponsored travel, including to Australia and Maui, from groups that do not employ lobbyists.
Cooper said he probably received more gifts last year than other lawmakers because he is local to Sacramento, as well as co-chair of the “Mod Caucus” of business-friendly Democrats and a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus: “You get invited to a lot of different events.”
He added that he has “turned a lot of things down,” but declined to discuss whether he has a policy for deciding which gifts he will accept.
“I know you’ve got to do your story,” he said.
Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff. Phillip Reese contributed to this report.