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Campaign cash gives Nunez rich travel style

October 05, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- As leader of the California Assembly, Speaker Fabian Nunez has traveled the world in luxury, paying with campaign funds for visits to some of the finest hotels and restaurants and for purchases at high-end retailers such as Louis Vuitton in Paris.

It is not clear how these activities have related to legislative business, as state law requires, because the Los Angeles Democrat refuses to provide details on tens of thousands of dollars in such expenditures.

The spending, listed in mandatory filings with the state, includes $47,412 on United, Lufthansa and Air France airlines this year; $8,745 at the exclusive Hotel Arts in Barcelona, Spain; $5,149 for a "meeting" at Cave L'Avant Garde, a wine seller in the Bordeaux region of France; a total of $2,562 for two "office expenses" at Vuitton, two years apart; and $1,795 for a "meeting" at Le Grand Colbert, a venerable Parisian restaurant.

Nunez also spent $2,934 at Colosseum Travel in Rome, and paid $505 to the European airline Spanair.

Other expenses are closer to home: a $1,715 meeting at Asia de Cuba restaurant in West Hollywood; a $317 purchase at upscale Pavilion Salon Shoes in Sacramento; a $2,428 meeting at 58 Degrees and Holding, a Sacramento wine bar and bistro; and $800 spent at Dollar Rent a Car in Kihei, Hawaii.

Asked in an interview about his foreign travel in general, Nunez said: "For me, it's a question of: Is my perspective on issues broad enough? Do I have enough context when I make decisions? This is a big state to run. You've got to know what you're doing.

"These trips," he said, "at least the ones I've taken -- I feel very confident and comfortable that they're not only justified but necessary for the decisions I need to make on a daily basis."

Given a list of 99 entries culled from his campaign finance filings, however, Nunez's staff refused to show how the expenditures were related to California government or politics. Spokeswoman Beth Willon would say only that the expenditures were "properly disclosed and described as required by law."

California law requires all campaign fund expenditures to be at least "reasonably" related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose. Expenditures that confer a substantial personal benefit must be "directly" related to such purposes.

Some of Nunez's travel in his more than three years as speaker has involved studying high-speed rail and preschool programs in France, studying renewable energy in Germany and Denmark, and visiting South America with other lawmakers and lobbyists to study global warming solutions.

Some activity, however, including the 2006 Barcelona visit and a $3,199 stay at Hotel Parco in Rome this year, does not appear tied to any policy-related trips announced by Nunez's office.

In the interview, Nunez said he wouldn't need to use his $5.3-million "Friends of Fabian Nunez" campaign account to offset travel costs if he were independently wealthy. The speaker's job pays $130,062 a year plus a tax-free $170 for expenses each day the Assembly is in session.

"There's not too big a difference," he said, "between how I live and how most middle-class people live."

Politicians are required to periodically disclose to the secretary of state's office contributions to and expenditures from their campaign accounts. Expenses are reported under 27 categories, such as "campaign consultants," "fundraising events" and "candidate travel, lodging and meals." The reporting forms also allow entries to be described in greater detail.

Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica called on Nunez to explain his spending.

"How much political, legislative and governmental work does Fabian Nunez have to do in Barcelona?" Heller said. "If they're legitimate [expenditures], you've got to explain it."

A popular politician from a heavily Democratic district, Nunez ran unopposed in his last election but, as speaker, is responsible for helping fund and manage other Democratic Assembly campaigns.

He received a total of $1.9 million in 2005 and 2006 from unions, corporations and others with a perennial stake in legislative business. They include $17,300 from AT&T and Verizon, phone companies that pushed Nunez legislation allowing them to compete against cable television companies, and $2,500 from a group of pharmaceutical companies affected by a Nunez bill to create a prescription drug discount program.

The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California donated $5,000 in February 2006, one day before a bill it sponsored was introduced in the Assembly.

The state Democratic Party, which unlike officeholders can raise unlimited sums, transferred $4 million to Nunez's campaign account last November.

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