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State Capitol Flooded With Freebies

Gifts to lawmakers and their families, such as meals and concert tickets, are legal. But some say firms are buying advantage.

November 26, 2004|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Perks flow so freely in this government town that you don't even need to be a bigwig to land a few goodies. You just need to work for the California Legislature, or know someone who does.

Free drinks, tickets to pro basketball games or to concerts with rock and country music stars are passed out regularly by companies with a financial stake in the operations of state government. The gifts go not only to lawmakers and their families, but also to staffers, secretaries and even the sergeants-at-arms who keep order at legislative hearings.

It's legal as long as the gifts are disclosed by the givers in reports filed every three months with the secretary of state. Lobbyists must reveal how much money they've passed out on behalf of the special interests they represent.

But observers such as Michael Josephson, founder of the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, say that the givers -- while not buying votes -- are fostering goodwill that can be used to their advantage someday.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Gifts to legislators -- An article and chart in Friday's California section about special-interest gift giving in Sacramento showed amounts spent by 10 companies on activities benefiting state officials from January through September. The article and chart should have made clear that only part of the total was spent directly on gifts to officials and their families. The figures included additional costs related to events attended by state officials.

"I don't think these kinds of gifts are equated with bribery," Josephson said, "but they're grease."

A review of 50 companies and groups that reported gift-giving between January and the end of September shows that the California Chamber of Commerce has so far spent the most -- $129,500 -- followed by telephone company SBC Communications, which spent $119,300 on gifts such as golf games, steak dinners and tickets to concerts at Staples Center in Los Angeles and to the Olympic track and field trials in Sacramento.

Third on the list is petroleum giant BP, which gets so many requests for seats in its Arco Arena luxury box in Sacramento that it maintains a special automated telephone line for workers lucky enough to hold the number: (916) 444-7968. So far this year, BP has given away $91,800 worth of tickets to ice-skating and circus shows, basketball games and concerts at the arena, home to the NBA's Sacramento Kings.

A recorded message on the phone line offers a lengthy instruction on how to report the gifts under state disclosure rules.

Callers are told that only lawmakers can have staff call and order tickets on their behalf. And there are limits.

"If you are requesting tickets to Kings games or other major concerts," states a BP government relations administrator on the ticket line, "please be aware that such requests are generally limited to two tickets."

Most of the BP tickets have gone to lawmakers and their top staff members and families, but people who handle telecommunications, travel and security for the Legislature have also taken advantage of the line.

"Is it nice to sit and drink what amounts to a free beer and eat a free hot dog?" said Senate chief sergeant-at-arms Tony Beard. "In my schedule, sure."

In January, BP gave Beard and his wife tickets worth $193.74 to see country musician George Strait. "The staff know I'm a huge fan," said Beard, whose duties include controlling lobbyist access to lawmakers in the Capitol.

While acknowledging that the Arco Arena events are "the kinds of things that not a lot of people get to go to," Beard said he gives BP no more courtesy than any other special interest.

Occasionally, he said, BP staff call and ask him the best way to get a tour group through the Capitol security gates, and he'll advise them.

"They don't get anything I don't give anyone else," said Beard.

BP spokesman Dan Cummings said the ticket line has been used since BP bought Atlantic Richfield Co. in 1999 and acquired a suite at the Arco-sponsored arena. The phone message system, he said, makes it easier to handle the routine requests for tickets.

The suite can seat 18 people, said Cummings, and usually one-half to one-third of those are taken by BP employees or guests. The rest are made available to Capitol employees. He said the company has also donated tickets to groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"The focus is on being a good community neighbor and having a good relationship in the community," said Cummings. An administrator -- not the senior BP governmental relations staff members who lobby state government officials and agencies -- determines who gets the tickets and makes arrangements for them to be picked up or delivered, he said. The phone number has been distributed around the Capitol by BP staff and word of mouth.

BP lobbyists don't even necessarily attend the games and concerts with lawmakers, said Cummings. "It's for them to come out and for them to enjoy themselves," he said. "We don't tend to talk business with them. We try to let them enjoy themselves."Josephson, who several years ago conducted ethics seminars for state lawmakers, said the free tickets create an improper sense of entitlement among public servants and give BP a roster of contacts within the Capitol.

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