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Assembly Panel May Study New Rules for Lobbyists' Behavior

June 10, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Herb J. Wesson Jr. promised Monday to investigate angry tirades by a lobbyist at two lawmakers' staff members last week, and he created a committee to study whether new rules are needed to check the behavior of lobbyists.

The outbursts have triggered widespread complaints by Democratic lawmakers that lobbyists representing special interest groups, particularly unions, have become too aggressive about seeking votes.

The incidents on Thursday involved Richie Ross, a lobbyist for the United Farm Workers. In a vulgarity-laced tirade just outside the Assembly chamber, Ross shouted at the chief of staff for Gloria Negrete-McLeod (D-Chino). According to witnesses, he implied that if the assemblywoman didn't vote for the bill he was pushing, it would be because of campaign contributions from opponents.

Just after that floor vote, again outside the chamber, Ross yelled at the chief of staff for Lois Wolk (D-Davis), after Wolk voted against the bill. Ross threatened to work to kill her bills in the Senate.

The bill at issue, AB 923 by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), would end tractor sales tax exemptions for large growers and use the savings to provide health insurance to some farm workers. It passed with a bare majority and goes to the Senate.

In a statement issued late Monday, Wesson promised Democrats that he would create a "special committee on protocol," headed by Assemblywoman Wilma Chan (D-Alameda). The other members named, all Democrats, are Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, Joe Nation of San Rafael, Ellen Corbett of San Leandro and Mark Ridley-Thomas of Los Angeles.

"This special committee will enhance the Assembly's ability to function in a way that serves the people of California," Wesson said. "Lobbyists play an important role in the legislative process, but they have an obligation to conduct themselves professionally and to respect this institution, its members and the staff who work here."

The committee's task, according to Wesson, is to reconsider Assembly rules governing lobbyists. Those rules include a ban on registered lobbyists working inside the Assembly chamber and a prohibition against any member of the public trying to influence a member's vote inside the chamber. Ross, a longtime political consultant, has run the campaigns of many prominent Democrats.

In a meeting called Thursday after Ross' outbursts, Assembly Democrats discussed carrying legislation to ban the sort of dual arrangement under which Ross works. Some members complain that his situation allows him to sway the votes of the politicians he helps to elect in ways that favor his lobbying clients.

In his statement, Wesson said the committee will consider "whether legislation is warranted to prohibit political consultants from working as registered lobbyists."

Ridley-Thomas said the committee "has its work cut out.... This is a very serious matter, and it will not go away easily."

Ross could not be reached for comment Monday evening. But he sent handwritten notes Monday to lawmakers who voted for AB 923. In some of the letters, Ross thanked the lawmakers for their vote and apologized for any offensive behavior.

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Times staff writer Virginia Ellis contributed to this report.

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