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Politicians' spending scrutinized

State ethics commission proposes that lawmakers disclose details on expenses.

December 04, 2007|Nancy Vogel and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO -- Politicians may soon be forbidden to travel the world, dine lavishly or buy gifts with campaign funds without proving publicly that those activities had a political or government purpose, and without disclosing, in many cases, who received the largesse.

Under a proposal made Monday by the state's ethics watchdog, detailed public disclosure of who benefited from such spending would be required of state officeholders, if given final approval next month. In addition, certain nonprofit groups involved in political campaigns would be forced to reveal their donors under a separate proposal by the Fair Political Practices Commission.

The plan for greater expense disclosure comes two months after a Times report described tens of thousands of dollars in spending by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) from his political fund. His expenditures included a $3,199 stay at Hotel Parco in Rome, $5,149 for a "meeting" at a wine shop in the Bordeaux region of France, and $2,562 for two purchases of "office expenses" at Louis Vuitton in Paris.

Nunez initially refused to explain the payments, which under existing state law must be at least "reasonably" related to a governmental or political purpose. After heavy media criticism, he offered some explanation for some expenditures, saying, for example, that the Louis Vuitton purchases were gifts for French dignitaries.

The law also says expenses that confer a "substantial personal benefit" must be "directly" related to government or politics. But politicians are not required to detail the official connection in the spending reports they file periodically to the secretary of state. They simply pick among 27 broad categories such as "candidate travel, lodging and meals" or "campaign literature and mailings."

"Speaker Nunez has always complied with state regulations on gifts and travel, and welcomes proposals to improve accountability to the public," said Nunez spokesman Steve Maviglio.

Under the new proposal, politicians and candidates would have to publicly list the gift recipients by name and the nature of the gift. They also would have to provide the dates of meals, the number of people at a meal and whether the diners included the politician's family or staff.

For out-of-state travel, politicians would have to disclose the dates and destination of travel and whether expenditures covered family and staff.

In all of these categories, the reports "shall state facts sufficient to demonstrate the political, legislative, or governmental purpose of the expenditure."

The rule also would require campaign account treasurers to make available to the commission, but not necessarily to the public, the names of all people who benefited from travel and meal expenditures.

The change, said commission chairman Ross Johnson, a former Republican state legislator from Orange County, "is important because the public has a right to know not just who is contributing to candidates but how the money is being spent. This is particularly true for gifts, meals and out-of-state travel, where the legislative, governmental or political purpose may be unclear."

Johnson is spearheading the effort to make more spending details public. His plan was announced in a commission agenda released Monday.

Tom Hiltachk, a Sacramento elections law attorney, cautioned that the commission must weigh practical considerations. For example, he said, a requirement to add a lot of description to what are now relatively streamlined reports might conflict with the commission's push for fast online publication.

Still, Hiltachk said, "it's hard to quarrel with an attempt to provide more disclosure."

The five-member commission is to consider the proposal at its Dec. 13 meeting. If adopted, the regulation would apply to all state and local elected officials and candidates who raise or spend more than $1,000 a year.

Robert Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, called the proposal a significant improvement to the Political Reform Act of 1974, which he helped write.

Three decades ago, he said, political watchdogs didn't anticipate that politicians would use their accounts to buy gifts.

"The FPPC is being very responsive to current events," said Stern, former general counsel to the commission. "Things change over the years and people use campaign funds in different ways. I think you have to be very aware of that."

Also on Monday, the commission's attorneys proposed an emergency regulation that would take effect this month, to make sure that certain nonprofit groups disclose the source of their funding when they advocate for or against a ballot measure.

In a report to the commission, attorney Lawrence T. Woodlock said a new rule is necessary because a federal appeals court recently raised concerns about the ability of the panel to subject groups such as the California ProLife Council to the same broad disclosure rules applied to political action committees.

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