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Donor money talks, often in a whisper

With voter-approved spending rules in place, those with a stake in state government get creative with giving.

December 29, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A massage for a lawmaker's wife. Circus tickets for his kids. Keys to a mountain cabin for the weekend. A donation to his favorite charity or one that flies him across the world on an "educational" trip.

There are many ways to get a politician's attention. Plenty of corporations, unions and others with a stake in state government do it the time-honored way: They write checks to campaign accounts or wine and dine lawmakers. But voters have restricted how much can be spent on such things.

These days, interest groups and wealthy individuals hoping to generate goodwill in the Capitol are doing more creative things, too. They still wine and dine, but they have found loopholes through which they also dispense money for a lawmaker's favorite cause, bestow lifestyle perks such as luxurious travel -- even provide them with outside income.

"Water flows into the cracks," said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. "People have had to become more ingenious."

This year's limit on gifts to legislators, for example, is $390. But gifts to their spouses don't count. So in September, life and health insurance companies could buy $682 in meals for Maggie Cox, wife of Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), at a Pebble Beach conference they both attended.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 10, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 119 words Type of Material: Correction
Political money: An article in Section A on Dec. 29, about ways in which special interest money is used, misidentified a nonprofit group that took state political leaders on a study tour to South America in November 2006. The group that sponsored the trip was the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, not the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance. The article also said Chevron and its subsidiaries donated $343,000 to the council in 2006; in fact, that sum was given during 2005 and 2006. Chevron also donated to the foundation last year, but the company and foundation officials -- who are not required by law to disclose the donations -- declined to specify how much.

Under California law, gifts must be disclosed in public filings with the secretary of state.

Nevertheless, largesse from special interests trying to create familiarity and goodwill in the Capitol is a "pernicious influence," said Robert C. Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego Law School.

Fellmeth has worked for 30 years on legislation to benefit children and consumers without giving state campaign contributions or gifts and has to work "very, very hard" to get an appointment with a lawmaker, he said.

Generosity from interest groups and individuals, he said, can foster in some decision-makers "a desire not to disappoint that extends to every possible future bill."

"It's not like a direct bribe," Fellmeth said. "It's worse. In a direct bribe, you get a quid and give a quo. And maybe it's over. But with what we have in Sacramento, there's no definition to the transaction, there's no limitation to the transaction."

Brad Wegner, president of the Assn. of California Life & Health Insurance Companies, host of an annual Pebble Beach conference with legislators, said his group seeks "interaction between policymakers and our members," and no favor is sought.

"What we get out of it," said Wegner, "is an exchange of information and the time to share views."

Dave Cox said the Pebble Beach event does not leave him better disposed toward the insurance companies, noting that he has voted against bills the association supported. No one has special access to him or his staff, he said: "We meet with anyone who wants to meet with us about any subject."

But Fellmeth said California needs a tighter lid on political money so that special interests cannot buy access to lawmakers. Ideally, legislators would be treated like judges and be barred from discussing legislation with interested parties outside of public hearings, he said. They should also be banned, he added, from taking anything of value from those parties.

"We've really got to have a wall of integrity," he said, "where legislators take nothing from anybody they affect as officials."

Here are some of the ways special interests curry favor:

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Be charitable

Many corporations and unions write generous checks to lawmakers' favorite charities. AT&T, for example, donated $20,000 last spring to the United Way of the Bay Area in the name of Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland).

The Barona Band of Mission Indians, owner of a casino near San Diego, takes a slightly different approach. In the last couple of years, the tribe has given $5,000 each to 60 schools across the state.

To be eligible for the Barona Education Grant Program, each school's application must include a letter of recommendation from a local lawmaker. Not only do the folks in the state Legislature know about the tribe's good deeds, but many get to hand out the Barona checks to winning school principals.

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Give to a pet cause

There are no limits on how much donors can give to campaign committees created to promote or defeat a ballot measure, and the Legislature's top leaders both have them.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), for example, wants to pass Proposition 93 on the February ballot, which would tweak California's term limits so he could run for the Assembly again next year. Big donations from special interests have poured into his "Yes on Prop. 93" fund: The state's biggest teachers union and a group of Los Angeles County casinos each kicked in $250,000. Donors of $100,000 or more include several public employee unions, the law firm Girardi & Keese, the California Dental Assn., Chevron Corp. and the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

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