SACRAMENTO -- A California congressman who recently won House approval of a bill that would prevent federal legislators from placing spouses on their campaign payrolls has joined advocates for clean government in calling for the state to also prohibit the controversial practice.
More than a dozen state lawmakers, including top legislative leaders, have paid $1.12 million in campaign cash -- raised from special interests -- to spouses, sons, daughters and companies that employed them during the last seven years, records show.
The spouses' income is on top of the state legislators' more than $113,000 annual salary.
Defenders of the practice say it is legal in California. It is proper as long as the spouse does the work paid for, they say.
But critics say that allowing campaigns to hire the wives or husbands of lawmakers can give special interests more influence by allowing them, through political contributions, to help fatten the wallets of elected officials.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) won House approval of a bill last month that he said would end the "potentially corrupt practice" of members of Congress writing big checks from donor funds to their spouses for services.
"When it's the spouse who gets campaign money, it goes directly into the officeholder's pocket and that's a grievous conflict of interest," Schiff, a former state senator, said. His wife, Eve, is a former marketing researcher who is a stay-at-home mom and does not work for pay on his campaigns.
Although his bill has gone to the U.S. Senate for consideration, Schiff said California should follow the lead of seven other states, including Connecticut, Ohio and Texas, that also have outlawed the payments to spouses.
Schiff introduced the federal bill after Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville) came under criticism for paying his wife a commission for campaign contributions she raised from supporters. The FBI has launched a probe of Julie Doolittle's business, which did work for imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Schiff's bill, which does not apply to state legislatures, bans not only direct payments by congressional campaign committees to spouses for services including consulting and fundraising, but also "indirect compensation," such as payments to companies that employ spouses.
In Sacramento, the practice of paying relatives with campaign funds has been used by legislators including state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine).
Ackerman defended his arrangement with his wife, Linda, who has received $68,500 from five of his campaign committees since 2000, including $10,500 this year. Some of it is for reimbursement of expenses, such as purchasing office supplies, but most is for fundraising and consulting services.
The money comes from political committees that accepted contributions from businesses wanting Ackerman's vote, including insurance industry groups, pharmaceutical companies, unions, and casino operators California Commerce Club and Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
"I am aware there are potential abuses, but you have to weigh the real cost and benefits," he said. "I don't see it as a conflict."
Ackerman said he was teased by colleagues for "being too cheap," adding that his wife was being paid below the market rate.
Looking at his own situation, Ackerman sees no need for something like the Schiff bill in California.
"Generally, I don't like to legislate unless there is a problem," he said. "I haven't seen the need for it at this level."
Perata tapped his campaign committees from 2000 through 2004 to pay $357,000 to Exit Strategies, a firm operated by his son, Nick, for campaign consulting.
FBI agents raided the son's home in December 2004 as part of an investigation seeking information on Exit Strategies and other firms. The probe has not led to any charges.
The investigation also was looking at a firm involving Perata's daughter that received $17,000 for fundraising and other services from 2000 through January 2005.
Perata declined through a spokeswoman to discuss whether a bill like Schiff's was needed in California. "We don't comment on hypothetical legislation," Alicia Trost said.
She deferred comment on the propriety of the practice to campaign officials for Perata, who did not return calls for comment.
In some cases, it is not easy to discern payments to spouses from the disclosure statements filed by legislators.
State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) has paid $178,000 to his wife, Elsa, mostly through her firm, Eventfully Yours. The majority of money is for fundraising events in the last seven years.
The arrangement resulted in an ethics complaint against Dean Florez by the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group, which said the payments were excessive and had the effect of enriching the senator.
The Fair Political Practices Commission took no action as a result of the complaint. Florez did not return calls for comment.