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Insider Has Push and Pull in Capitol

One Richard Ross client, a senator, carries a bill for a tribe that also pays the lobbyist-consultant.

June 28, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A state senator is carrying legislation at the request of a political consultant who ran his reelection campaign, continues to be on retainer and has clients who would benefit from the measure.

Richard Ross, both a political consultant and lobbyist in Sacramento, told The Times that one of his lobbying clients -- the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Mission Indians -- came to him seeking the legislation, and he asked his political client, Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), to sponsor the bill.

Secretary of state records show that Ross ran Florez's campaign last fall, and at the end of the year, Florez owed him $100,000.

Florez said that he "thinks" he has paid off the debt to Ross but continues to retain him.

"I think the last quarter we paid him $20,000 and this quarter we'll pay him $20,000," said the senator. "To me, that has absolutely no bearing in terms of his value. His advice to me is worth a million dollars."

The Florez bill, a proposed constitutional amendment, is of interest to tribes with gambling interests because it would discourage competition. It would require that non-Indian interests get approval of state voters, or of two-thirds of the Legislature, before they could operate Nevada-style casinos in the state.

The measure, SCA 10, is pending in the Senate Governmental Organization Committee. It has been endorsed by the Viejas tribe and another Ross client, the Barona Band of Mission Indians, which operates large casinos in San Diego County.

Ross' lobbying activities have been the catalyst in recent weeks for legislation that would prohibit political consultants from lobbying lawmakers they helped elect. The sponsors of the legislation argue that it is a conflict of interest for a consultant to seek help for other clients from legislators with whom they have a special relationship because they helped them win their office.

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Man on Many Payrolls

The consultant's firm, Ross Communications, has been the paid advisor to at least 14 Democratic lawmakers and constitutional officers since 2001. They include Sen. Joe Dunn of Santa Ana, Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, Assemblyman Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Ross also earns income as a lobbyist registered to represent the Barona and Viejas tribes, the United Farm Workers of America, the California Applicants' Attorneys Assn., the Consumer Attorneys of California, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and Maloof Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Sacramento Kings professional basketball team.

The Capitol insider defended his matchmaking between clients. He called it less questionable than a corporate donor asking a lawmaker to carry a bill at a political fund-raiser.

"What people are trying to do is say ... that because I'm a political consultant, I have some relationship that gives me some advantage over the guys who are having fund-raisers at their house," said Ross. "I raise hell, they raise money, and I need to be reformed. That, to me, is absurd."

Florez said he talks with Ross about all of the measures he carries. But "I would not carry anything that Richie brought to me that I didn't agree with," he said.

Florez acknowledged that the gambling measure was not the only bill he carried at Ross' suggestion.

Florez said Ross also suggested he carry SB 900, a bill that would tighten the measures Internet companies must take to ensure they are not selling harmful material -- such as pornography -- to people younger than 18.

The bill is supported by Aristotle International, which makes software that allows companies to screen the age of buyers by checking government databases. Aristotle has paid $7,000 so far this year to lobbyist Patrick Johnston, who in turn has paid $5,000 to Ross' daughter, Esperanza Ross, to lobby for the company.

Florez said he did not know of Esperanza Ross' involvement.

"Even if I'd known that," he said, "I'd still carry the bill. It makes sense with the values in my particular district."

Richie Ross said he is "uninvolved, unaware and frankly disinterested" in SB 900.

Another Ross campaign client, Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden), this week began rewriting a bill to directly benefit the Barona tribe. The original bill would have changed the name of the state office dealing with milk safety. Machado's proposed amendments would limit environmental review of a water pipeline construction project sought by the Barona tribe.

Machado has received $18,000 in contributions from the tribe since 2001.

Machado said that he had talked to Barona officials "long before Richie came in with other representatives of Barona to work on the issue."

He denied that Barona contributions or his connection to Ross had anything to do with his handling of legislation.

Ross said he had "nothing to do" with connecting Barona and Machado, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Water Resources Committee.

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