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Watchdog expands rules on spending disclosure

Politicians will have to itemize in-state trips paid with donor funds.

May 20, 2008|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — California politicians will no longer be allowed to use campaign contributions to pay for golf, lavish hotels and expensive meals while traveling in the state unless they disclose who was along and what purpose it served to help them do their job, under rules adopted Monday by the state's ethics watchdog agency.

In an effort to reduce the influence of special interests, the state Fair Political Practices Commission also voted Monday to bar elected officials -- such as state legislators and city council members -- from having third parties pay for travel through government agencies.

The requirement for increased disclosure follows the commission's vote in February that required that politicians disclose the "political, legislative or governmental" purpose of out-of-state trips paid for by campaign donors.

"Public officials don't need five-star hotels, haute cuisine and $100 bottles of wine to effectively govern the state of California," said Carmen Balber, political accountability director at Consumer Watchdog. "The new rules will require politicians to justify how they spend their campaign cash and, hopefully, rein in the kind of extravagant spending that has become more and more routine."

The commission's push for increased disclosure followed Times reports last year that then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and others had spent tens of thousands of dollars from political accounts to travel through Europe.

His campaign spending included $47,412 on United, Lufthansa and Air France airlines, $8,745 at the exclusive Hotel Arts in Barcelona, Spain, and $5,149 for what he reported as a "meeting" at Cave L'Avant Garde, a wine seller in the Bordeaux region of France.

Some officials, including state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), also faced criticism for using campaign contributions to travel to resorts in California. His recent trips have included fundraising visits to the Pebble Beach Resort and the Bacara Resort and Spa in Santa Barbara.

Under the new rules, to take effect July 1, it will not be enough to report such expenses only as "fundraising."

Politicians will have to provide an itemized expenditure on all travel, including lodging and meals, the dates of the trip, the goods or services paid for, the number of individuals for whom the expenditure was paid and whether they included the candidate or a member of the candidate's household.

A spokesman for Nunez said the assemblyman had legitimate purposes for his trips and supported the requirement for more detail.

"The new requirement simply makes that information more public in the future," said spokesman Steve Maviglio, adding that Nunez "always has complied with the law and applauds the commission for its continued attempts to provide the public with more disclosure."

The commission also adopted a rule prohibiting private interests from paying elected officials' travel expenses directly to government agencies, thereby circumventing disclosure requirements. The panel also expanded the prohibition to include travel by other high-ranking government officials -- including city managers, county chief administrative officers, judges and members of the state Public Utilities and California Coastal commissions.

The political practices commission "is moving to close loopholes and making sure gifts that are intended for high-ranking government officials cannot be made behind the public's back," Chairman Ross Johnson said. "If someone wants to pay for an official's travel they can make a gift directly to that official if it's within the gift limits and is fully disclosed by the official."

Unlike gifts directly reported by the elected official, when a company reimburses a state agency for travel expenses it is not routinely disclosed.

"The possibility of abuse is much greater with private sources paying for travel for elected officials," wrote Hyla P. Wagner, senior counsel to the commission, in a report justifying the rule change. "While there are some legitimate privately sponsored trips for educational or governmental purposes, many privately sponsored trips for elected officials appear to the public to be junkets."

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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