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A first-class mess

Who's paying for jet-setting by the governor? Tougher disclosure rules would give us the answer.

December 11, 2007

Arnold Schwarzenegger was already so rich, his supporters claimed, he wouldn't need to make political deals with campaign donors. Look, they said, he's not even going to take his salary! What a deal for California!

What a deal indeed. Instead of taking a salary, Schwarzenegger takes overseas trips that feature private jets and luxury suites. His purpose is ostensibly to promote California, but his expenses are paid by donors who want something from him, like a signature or a veto at bill-signing time. Those donors funnel their cash to the governor, in anonymity, through something called the California State Protocol Foundation. Because it's a nonprofit organization, campaign laws that limit how much contributors can give simply don't apply.

In his first year in office, the governor duly disclosed how much he was being reimbursed for his promotional junkets. But then he was advised that filing the forms was unnecessary. The reason? The foundation wasn't giving the money to the governor personally but to the governor's office. Now his aides may be doing little more than making mental notes of how much foundation money he spends.

The governor's aides say they're complying with the law. What they really mean is that they're releasing as little information as the law will permit. Schwarzenegger ought to be ashamed. He promised to set new standards of openness and independence. He has instead delivered creative new ways to circumvent disclosure.

Fortunately, the public is not powerless. The state's Fair Political Practices Commission can update its regulations to keep pace with the latest, and sneakiest, methods of connecting special interest money with elected officials. It should move swiftly to mandate the kind of disclosure that Schwarzenegger could make now, but won't.

The commission is up to the job. It has a vigorous new chairman in Ross Johnson, a Republican former assemblyman and state senator who is passionate about campaign finance disclosure. On Thursday, the commission will take up his proposal to require more disclosure by officials who spend more traditional campaign donations on jet-setting lifestyles. It's a response to Times reports about the travels of Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who appears to be engaged with Schwarzenegger in some kind of champagne-and-caviar arms race.

It's too bad that a basic sense of responsibility to the public isn't enough to make people like Schwarzenegger and Nunez fully disclose who is paying them, how much and for what. But it's not. That's why the commission must act.

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