Gifts to politicians attract new scrutiny
By Jake Armstrong 03/10/2011
California’s legislators and elected officers accepted nearly $650,000 worth of dinners, tickets and overseas trips paid for by lobbyists, nonprofits and others with an interest in the capitol in 2010.
That’s according to personal financial disclosures filed last week with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s political watchdog.
Assemblyman Anthony Portantino reported receiving $7,000 worth of dinners, receptions and tickets to the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game from local governments, and entertainment and labor unions, among others. State Sen. Carol Liu reported accepting nearly $15,700 in gifts.
While nothing new, or illegal, these types of gifts to politicians are attracting greater scrutiny from the public — even lawmakers — amid the current scandal-borne zeitgeist of government distrust. Some, like the nonprofit public advocacy group California Common Cause, want to see such gift-giving, and the potential for corruption it creates, curtailed entirely.
“From our perspective disclosure is fantastic … But we think this disclosure should be the first step to banning these kinds of gifts for lawmakers,” said Katie Fleming, Common Cause’s policy advocate in Sacramento. “In the end, these gifts are given for a reason. Those giving the gifts are expecting access in return, and the average citizen may not have those resources to give gifts themselves.”
But Liu, who studied high-speed trains, desalinization and more on a trip to Spain with a coalition of officials from labor unions, utility companies and manufacturers last year, said such trips give lawmakers perspective and insight they cannot get at home.
“True, we break bread together and have conversation. But, you know, I don’t know that you get to corruption because of a conversation,” Liu said. “Travel is always an education, and I think people benefit from exchanging information face to face. I think there is a lot to learn that’s not learned in your own backyard.”
However, there are exceptions. “I guess you can make a case that some people don’t know limits,” she said.
On the go
Trips abroad sponsored by nonprofit groups account for much of the dollar value of gifts given to the Pasadena-area Democrats.
The Korea Foundation, housed in the Los Angeles Korean General Consulate, paid $6,175 to send Liu — a member of the Senate Education Committee and the education budget subcommittee — on a six-day trip to “explore Korea educational systems and facilities” in September, according to the filings.
Liu also reported accepting an $8,830 12-day trip to Spain in November from the San Francisco-based California Foundation on the Environment & the Economy — a band of union, manufacturing and utility officials — to study renewable energy, infrastructure and desalinization, according to the filing.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles footed a $4,574 travel and lodging bill for Portantino to visit Israel in December for an eight-day “legislative update on Israel high-tech industry and economy and politics.” Portantino, who blogged about his first sponsored study trip on the organization’s Web site, traveled to Israel with at least four other lawmakers.
Liu said the trips, which gave her insight into how Korea attains a 90-percent literacy rate and into the underpinnings of Spain’s emerging high-speed rail system, do offer access, but the practical value of information they provide often gets overshadowed by the public’s distrust of government.
Portantino and the others spent the trip learning about Israeli plans for a nationwide electric car network, something that has been on the front of California’s collective conscious for years, Portantino said. Additionally, the group examined the country’s entrepreneurial support system, which intertwines the public and private sectors to spur innovation, he said.
“For me, learning about some of these innovation ideas, seeing how they nurture entrepreneurs and to see how they have a handle on innovation was very powerful,” he said, adding he’s begun setting up meetings between Israeli entrepreneurs and California business people in hope of spurring similar activity here.
Portantino, who chairs the Assembly Select Committee on Preservation of California Entertainment Industry, also reported accepting $420 in tickets from the Screen Actors Guild to attend that organization’s January 2010 awards show, which several people surreptitiously attended after crashing the gate. Six months later, Portantino, at the request of the guild and on the heels of the White House gate-crashing incident, introduced a bill that would have made gate-crashing illegal in California. That bill, however, died in the state Senate.
By trade, Portantino is a filmmaker —the only one in the Legislature, he points out — and that’s made him the film industry’s point man in Sacramento.
“The film industry is a core part of the California economy, especially in Southern California, and I have been considered one of the go-to folks because of my position,” he said, adding his insight has led to changes in proposed universal health care legislation that would have cost the film industry far more than typical companies. “I think we need to do something about the film economy, and I am pleased to be in a position of helping.”
The filings, which include a listing of investments, also indicate Liu has invested more than $1 million into her daughter’s dog and cat attire company, Simply She Inc.
Tickets to ride
Even Pasadena has come under scrutiny for once leaving open the possibility that gifts — namely
the high-value Rose Bowl Game tickets that get handed out every year and the even more expensive BCS Championship tickets every four years — could be used as political lucre.
In 2008, the FPPC clamped down on the thousands of free tickets being distributed to city officials around the state, including in Pasadena, where the mayor and council were among those receiving for free a share of 2,000-plus Rose Parade grandstand tickets, in addition to tickets to the Rose Bowl Game. A year later, the Pasadena City Council adopted a new policy to hand out the tickets in accordance with the California Political Reform Act, the 1974 measure at the foundation of the state’s ethics laws.
Now the number of tickets the City Manager’s Office, the Rose Bowl Operating Co. and the Pasadena Center Operating Co. receive and hand out, as well as the recipients, is reported on the city’s Web site each year. For the 2011 New Year, the City Manager’s Office, the RBOC and the PCOC distributed nearly 3,250 tickets for the Rose Parade, the Rose Bowl Game and related events, with 3,013 of the Rose Parade tickets worth as much as $95.
FPPC officials hoped the rule change would cut down on the number of tickets issued to officials around the state. But Pasadena already had a ticket disclosure system in place at the time, one that took on only minor changes after the FPPC decision, Mayor Bill Bogaard said.
“In the end, because we already had rules that required full disclosure of all the recipients of those tickets, I haven’t found that the new requirements are burdensome,” he said.