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Ads Aid Casino Backers After Tribe Gift to GOP

Republican legislators had pushed a bid to let the Agua Caliente build another gaming facility.

October 07, 2006|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A wealthy Indian tribe gave $450,000 to the Republican Party of Riverside County, which then launched an advertising blitz that has benefited two GOP lawmakers who were seeking to help the tribe expand its Palm Springs gambling operations.

State Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta) and his protege, Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City), led the effort to pass legislation in August that would have let the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians build a third casino in the area.

Assembly Democrats blocked the measure at the end of the legislative session Aug. 31. Agua Caliente donated $450,000 to the Republican Party of Riverside County on Sept. 13, according to a campaign finance report filed this week.

The Riverside County committee then bought TV ads attacking Garcia's foe -- Democrat Steve Clute -- in the Nov. 7 election.

Democratic and GOP consultants alike increasingly make use of county party committees, because rules governing them require little or no disclosure at the time donations are made.

Additionally, Battin, who has a private campaign business on the side, bought the committee $300,000 worth of television time for the ads. He would not say how much he made on the ads.

Agua Caliente's $450,000 contribution was by far the largest donation the Riverside County GOP has received since at least 2000. The next largest donation was for $26,600. A single donation directly to a legislative candidate cannot exceed $3,300 per election. But contributors can give unlimited sums to fund so-called issue advocacy ads.

Ned Wigglesworth of the nonprofit watchdog group California Common Cause in Sacramento, called the situation "pay to play at its finest."

"Even though we will likely never know whether Garcia or Battin traded their office for campaign cash or consulting fees, this looks bad enough to put both politicians in hot water with the voters," he said.

Bill Deaver, a Republican and former California Fair Political Practices Commission member, criticized Battin for operating the campaign-related firm while serving in the Legislature.

"Legal or illegal, it just shouldn't be done," Deaver said. "It amazes me that people think they can get away with stuff like this."

Garcia, with Battin's backing, carried the August legislation to ratify the deal, struck near the end of the legislative session by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It would have allowed Agua Caliente to construct a third casino and add 3,000 slot machines to its existing 2,000 devices.

At a Senate panel hearing, Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich publicly lauded Garcia for pushing the measure.

"After listening to Bonnie, I don't have to say anything. She said it all," Milanovich told senators. Then, putting his arm on the lawmaker, he added, "That's why we help this woman get reelected every two years."

The measure won Senate approval but stalled in the Assembly after labor, saying the tribe blocked union organizing efforts, urged Democrats to rebuff it.

On Friday, Battin said he has urged that tribes use their wealth to help elect more Republicans. "We certainly have encouraged the Indians to get involved in elections, absolutely. The Democrats in the Assembly totally betrayed them."

Battin is perhaps Agua Caliente's strongest ally in the Legislature. Since first winning election in 1994, he has taken $1.3 million in donations from tribes with casinos, including more than $360,000 from Agua Caliente.

Garcia has taken at least $110,000 from tribes during her political career, including $16,000 from Agua Caliente. She was an aide to Battin before she won her Assembly seat four years ago.

Garcia, who did not respond to a call seeking comment, is one of the few incumbents facing a challenge of any note next month.

Clute, her Democratic foe, spent a decade in the Assembly, ending in 1992.

The Riverside County GOP ads that aired in mid-September attacked him for votes they said he made favoring taxes, fees and illegal immigrants.

Jeff Miller, chairman of the Riverside GOP and a Corona city councilman, said he hired a campaign firm, Meridian Pacific of Sacramento, to produce the ads. Meridian retained Battin's company, Voter Strategies of La Quinta, to buy ad time at television stations in Riverside and Imperial counties.

Matt Rexroad, a partner at Meridian Pacific, defended the decision to hire Battin.

"I almost always use Jim's firm unless he has a conflict or the client requires me to use someone else," Rexroad said in an e-mail. "He is simply the best at media buys such as this."

Battin said he turns down jobs working directly for tribes. "As a legislator with a business, you have to be very, very careful," he said.

Agua Caliente spokesmen declined to be interviewed. But Alva Johnson, the tribe's director of governmental affairs, said in an e-mail: "The tribe made a contribution to the Riverside County Republican Party because it supports the party. We do not control what the party does with the tribe's contributions."

Clute said he thinks the ads and mailers took a toll but added, "We've endured this well, and we're getting stronger." He said Garcia's decision to carry the casino legislation "makes her look like her only purpose in life is to try to double the number of slots for Agua Caliente."

Stephen J. Kaufman, Clute's campaign attorney, filed a complaint with the FPPC this week saying the party misrepresented the spots as being issue advocacy ads that were independent of the Garcia campaign.

dan.morain@latimes.com

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