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Senator Solicits Tribes for PR Work

June 19, 2003|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- A California state senator who sits on a committee that oversees gambling issues is urging Indian tribes that operate casinos to retain his private consulting group to bolster their image and fend off political attacks from other gambling interests.

Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta) said Wednesday that he and his partners have sent sales pitches to at least three tribes, offering to mount public relations and advertising campaigns on their behalf.

One of the proposals describes the Battin team as being able to "provide reach into all levels of government, and vast experience in communications strategy, production and implementation."

Battin, who is paid $99,000 a year as a full-time lawmaker, noted that there is no prohibition against earning outside income and said his enterprise doesn't compromise his legislative responsibilities.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
37th Senate District --An article Thursday about state Sen. Jim Battin's attempt to win consulting work from some of the casino-operating Indian tribes incorrectly described his district. It covers portions of Riverside County. It no longer includes parts of San Diego and Imperial counties, since a redistricting prompted by the 2000 Census.

"If I felt conflicted, I would abstain," Battin said. "I'm not interested in crossing the line."

But his actions in soliciting business from the casino tribes, which have become the state's largest campaign donors and are affected each year by legislation, drew sharp criticism.

"In my wildest dreams, I can't imagine it's true," said Karen Getman, who recently stepped down as chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, which oversees state financial disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws. "I am truly speechless. You think you've heard everything, but you really haven't."

Added Bill Deaver, a Republican and former commission member: "The word I would use is outrageous. That's terrible."

A commission spokeswoman, Sigrid Bathen, said the panel's policy precluded her from commenting.

Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga was unavailable for comment, but Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) said he was taken aback by the situation.

"I've known Jim Battin as a guy of the highest rectitude," Burton said. "I don't know what to say. I guess it is up to Battin. To quote John Ehrlichman, I'm nonplused."

Battin is among the Legislature's most outspoken supporters of Indian sovereignty and their right to operate casinos. His district includes all of Imperial County, the northern and eastern portions of San Diego County and parts of Riverside County, where several Indian casinos operate.

He sits on the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which oversees bills affecting card rooms and horse racing, and serves on a select committee on horse racing.

Battin said that he created his part of the consulting group -- Voter Strategies Media Buying and Consultants -- this year and that he will comply with state disclosure laws by listing it as a source of income in next year's filing.

In a sales pitch sent earlier this month, the Battin group wrote that the team of political consultants would include Terry Nelson, past director of political operations for the Republican National Committee and current political director for President Bush's reelection campaign.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Nelson said he knew that initial solicitations -- before he was appointed to the Bush campaign in May -- included a biography of his consulting firm, Dawson McCarthy Nelson Media. But Nelson said he was surprised to learn that his name was still included.

"I have always been clear that I would never take an active role in this effort," he said. "My firm would, but I would not take any active role. I knew that I was going to be taking" the position in the Bush campaign "and I knew in that position I would not be able to fulfill those obligations."

Among the tribes contacted are ones that operate some the state's busiest casinos: the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians outside Palm Springs and the Barona Band of Mission Indians in San Diego County.

In an interview at his Capitol office, Battin said he had received assurances from his lawyer that his involvement in the consulting group breaks no state law.

Battin, 40, is among the Republicans' biggest recipients of campaign money from Indian tribes.

Tribes with casinos donated $140,000 to his campaign committee in 2002, a year when he faced no election. Tribes have given him at least $18,000 so far this year.

"As a legislator," Battin said, "I have every right to have outside interests, just like doctors who are legislators and lawyers who are legislators. I have been very clear and very careful not to mix the two."

Tribes emerged as economic and political forces in the mid-1990s. Each year, several bills are introduced that affect them.

This year, Gov. Gray Davis and tribes want to renegotiate compacts governing gambling operations, and legislators probably will be asked to ratify those deals.

The consultants' memo takes a swipe at horse racing and card rooms, which compete with tribes for gambling dollars. In the proposal, the Battin group warned that a backlash of public opinion poses "the greatest threat to Native American governments looking ahead."

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