SACRAMENTO — When Richard Costigan resigned as lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce last November, the business group chipped in for a $589 farewell gift, a wood-and-glass model of the domed Capitol where Costigan went to work for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It was the first of many gifts. Over the next few months, the chamber wined and dined Costigan, the governor's chief liaison to the Legislature, along with his staff. Other corporate interests also lavished gifts on the aides, who shape the governor's legislative agenda: $246 tickets to eat, drink and watch the Sacramento Kings' NBA playoff game in BP's corporate box; a $199 pass to Disneyland; $324 worth of tickets to Disney on Ice, courtesy of SBC; and dozens of meals and drinks at receptions sponsored by groups such as the California Bankers Assn., Miller Brewing, the California Farm Bureau and the California Building Assn.
Over 10 months, Costigan's staff accepted more than $5,100 worth of gifts, and the chamber reported spending so much on Costigan that the amount raised a potential conflict of interest for the governor's advisor.
Costigan's team are among many key Schwarzenegger administration officials routinely enjoying corporate largess from special interests seeking to influence state decisions.
A Times review of thousands of lobbying reports filed since the recall election found that large corporations and business groups, many with strong ties to the administration, account for virtually all of the tickets to sporting events, dinners and receptions handed out to Schwarzenegger aides.
While the practice of taking tickets and meals has been common among legislators and their staffs for years, Gov. Gray Davis had a written policy directing his appointees not to accept gifts from groups lobbying the administration because of concern that gift-givers would expect something in return.
Peter Siggins, Schwarzenegger's legal advisor, said he counsels staff to obey the law, which allows officials to accept up to $340 in gifts in a calendar year from any one special interest. The legal limits and public disclosure requirements are intended to ensure that officials' decisions aren't swayed by gifts.
The Times analysis of spending reports for the year that ended Sept. 30 found several instances where high-ranking officials skirted the gift limits.
Five of the governor's senior aides and their families each used more than $340 worth of Kings tickets in a single night. In a town where passion for politics is exceeded only by passion for the local basketball team and tickets to sold-out games are a precious commodity, the governor's confidantes, their spouses and children sat in luxury boxes courtesy of BP and SBC.
In May, Communications Director Rob Stutzman, his wife and young son watched the Kings triumph over the Minnesota Timberwolves in game six of the Western Conference semifinals, using $767 worth of tickets from SBC. In April, Deputy Chief of Staff Cassandra Pye's husband and 15-year-old son used tickets valued at $431, courtesy of SBC; Cassandra Pye did not even attend.
SBC spokesman John Britton declined to explain how the firm distributed the $3,946 worth of tickets given to Schwarzenegger administration officials between November and June. Britton said SBC, the dominant phone company in California, was eager to press its case that it has been subsidizing rivals. "We take every opportunity to communicate with state policy makers, including the governor and his staff," Britton said. "We're just trying to maintain a good relationship."
Delivered to Relatives
Stutzman, Pye and others were taking advantage of a legal loophole: Gifts to children or spouses count toward the $340 limit only if they are handed first to the state official, but do not count if they are delivered directly to the relatives. Tickets left in a child's name at the will call window, for example, are exempt, under a regulation adopted by the Fair Political Practices Commission in 1986. The theory is that the official is not benefiting from the gift.
Margita Thompson, Schwarzenegger's press secretary, defended the gifts with arguments that suggested the governor's aides do benefit: Such family excursions provide needed relief for overworked state officials, she said, and bonds between children can translate into political alliances.
"I've certainly heard of instances where two little boys whose parents are in opposing parties end up hanging out and bonding as children can uniquely do. And suddenly, you have an even deeper tie," Thompson said.
Daniel Lowenstein, a UCLA law professor who was the first chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, said tickets given to relatives in order to court a state official should be counted as gifts to the official. "As a matter of common sense, if someone takes you out, it's one gift," Lowenstein said.