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Political gifts could be curbed

State watchdog agency is considering tougher disclosure rules and a possible outright ban.

January 25, 2008|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

California's political watchdog agency is drafting tougher disclosure rules for gifts accepted by elected officials and could ban many of them altogether for statewide office-holders.

If the Fair Political Practices Commission adopts the proposals, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could be in jeopardy of losing free overseas trips on luxury jets leased by a taxpayer-subsidized nonprofit, which is linked to the California Chamber of Commerce.

Last month, The Times reported that Schwarzenegger's office had avoided fully disclosing payments of $1.7 million by the nonprofit, the California State Protocol Foundation, for the governor's jets, hotel suites and support staff.

At the same time, the foundation generally has refused to release the names of its donors, who enjoy the same charitable tax write-offs as supporters of the American Red Cross and soup kitchens. Tax laws do not require the group to reveal its contributors.

Schwarzenegger has not reported the foundation travel payments on his disclosure forms because he claims the gifts are made to his office, rather than to him personally. Advocates for open government have denounced that position as a ruse and contend that the foundation's corporate backers pay for the trips to curry favor with Schwarzenegger.

"The policies have really been abused," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and co-author of the law that created the commission. "Why are people giving gifts? They're giving gifts for one reason -- to influence the public official."

Commission spokesman Roman Porter said the panel hopes to tighten regulations that determine which gifts should be publicly reported as personal ones. It also is considering requiring full disclosure of all gifts, including on the commission's website, Porter said.

Now, gifts to the governor's office -- such as payments for his Gulfstream jet -- are merely recorded on internal memos, which in the past have often lacked dollar amounts.

"The commission is examining ways to provide greater clarity," Porter said. "The commission is also looking at further clarifying what gifts are appropriate and allowed under state law to agencies, public officials and elected officials."

In addition, The Times has learned, the panel is weighing whether to prohibit gifts to an agency from being passed on to high-ranking elected and appointed officials. That would directly target the jets and suites that the protocol foundation donates and Schwarzenegger uses.

Porter would not discuss the possible ban on such pass-along gifts. Commission Chairman Ross Johnson, who has been pushing for reforms since Schwarzenegger appointed him early last year, declined an interview request.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the office had no comment on "any unannounced, proposed regulations. . . . We'll continue to follow the reporting and disclosures rules set down by the FPPC."

The commission already has begun stiffening disclosure rules for the use of campaign cash. That came in response to Times revelations that Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) has spent large sums on lavish travel and purchases at swank retailers such as Louis Vuitton in Paris without showing how they might be related to state business.

California Common Cause's policy advocate, Christina Lokke, said a crackdown on gifts is overdue. "Any time the governor or another statewide officer receives a gift from any entity, you have to wonder what the motivation is," she said.

Lokke scoffed at the notion that the travel payments were gifts to the office rather than to Schwarzenegger. "Obviously, the governor is the one receiving the gift because he is the one traveling on the plane and receiving the special treatment," she said.

Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, agreed, saying that if the panel "strips away the ability of the chamber to put the governor on a private jet, that's real valuable. That's a strong statement."

He said gifts to elected officials at every level in Sacramento have become "a hidden economy."

Porter said the proposals would be reviewed over the next several weeks. A first step would be to determine whether the commission could impose them unless the Legislature changed the law, he said.

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paul.pringle@latimes.com

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