SACRAMENTO — Legislative leaders and committee chairmen who played an influential role in deciding the fate of legislation last year received thousands of dollars apiece in outside income and gifts from special-interest groups affected by their decisions.
Records filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission and the secretary of state show that 15 legislators in key positions of power received a total of at least $396,599 in salaries, speaking fees and gifts from businesses and groups that sought to influence the Legislature's actions.
Not all legislative leaders and committee chairman subsidized their income with sizable payments from special interests. But those who received the largest amounts of money and gifts were generally in key positions to influence legislation.
Reports of such payments, disclosed by legislators this month in their required yearly statements of economic interest, come at a time when the Legislature is struggling to improve an image tarnished by the bribery scandal surrounding fireworks manufacturer W. Patrick Moriarty. Former Assemblyman Bruce Young (D-Norwalk) was convicted last month on five charges of mail fraud in the affair and at least one current legislator is under investigation in the case.
Now, even some of the lawmakers who were major recipients of outside income from special-interest groups last year say the time has come to place a limit on such payments.
"A higher salary and severely restricting outside income would be a much better way to go," said Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who received at least $36,879 worth of speaking fees and gifts last year from a broad spectrum of groups that sought to influence legislation.
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman John Seymour of Anaheim said: "When you abuse anything, there is going to be a hue and cry for reform. . . . Some people's price is $1. Some people's price is $10 million. I guess that's why we do need reform."
Seymour, the No. 2 Republican leader in the Senate, received at least $21,093 in speaking fees and gifts from special interests last year. But even he said he was "shocked" by the surge in legislators' outside income.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), the Legislature's most powerful member, was by far the leader in collecting outside income from special-interest groups. The Times reported recently that Brown received at least $124,425 in legal fees, honorariums and gifts from businesses and organizations that sought to influence legislation.
Brown has said he will propose legislation that would ban all outside income for legislators while increasing their salary to as much as $85,000 a year. They now receive $37,105 annually and a tax-free allowance of $75 a day when the Legislature is in session.
While the bulk of the legislators' outside income last year was in the form of honorariums and gifts, some lawmakers were also on the payroll of companies that had a stake in decisions made by the Legislature and state agencies.
One such lawmaker was Senate Republican Leader James W. Nielsen of Rohnert Park. He received at least $10,000 in salary from Roy Riegels Chemical Co., a distributor of the controversial herbicide Bolero that has been blamed for the bitter taste in Sacramento's drinking water, raising questions of a potential health hazard.
Earlier this year, Nielsen lobbied members of a regional water board who were considering restricting the use of Bolero and threatened one board member that he would not support her reappointment, which requires confirmation by the Senate, if she voted to limit use of the chemical.
Nielsen, a 17-year employee of the company, acknowledged his lobbying activities but said they did not constitute a conflict of interest because he was representing farmers who live in his district, not his employer. "The fundamental question is, did I lobby to enrich myself, and the answer is conclusively no," he said.
In addition to his salary, Nielsen accepted $19,107 in honorariums and gifts from health care, agricultural, banking and other organizations, bringing his total income from special-interest groups to at least $29,107.
While Nielsen was working for Roy Riegels, Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, received $5,700 to sit on the board of directors of Blue Shield of California, one of the state's largest health insurance companies.
Blue Shield's Lobbying
Blue Shield, in a disclosure statement it was required to file with the secretary of state, reported that it lobbied the Legislature on 75 bills last year, including five bills that came before Watson's committee. The company reported it was also interested in a bill by Watson that would have allowed union members to receive unemployment benefits more quickly.