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Campaign donations add luxury to California politics

Some lawmakers use the gifts to finance the good life, expenditure reports show.

February 09, 2009|Patrick McGreevy and Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — Some California lawmakers haven't let the state's financial calamity keep them from enjoying the good life; they've been using campaign cash for first-class travel abroad, expensive dinners, salon makeovers and visits to luxurious spas.

Spending reports filed with the state covering the last three months show:

Several lawmakers checked into the Fairmont Hotel on Maui on donors' dimes two days after the start of an emergency session on the budget in November.

The lead state senator on budget issues joined colleagues who left the fiscal crisis behind to go to India, where they toured the Taj Mahal and stayed at a Four Seasons and other luxury hotels.

The former state Senate leader used campaign donations to pay $2,163 in membership fees to an exclusive Northern California social club.

"It's so stomach-turning," said Doug Heller, executive director of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog. "There should be a self-imposed prohibition on living the political high life when California's budget is in such disarray."

State law says campaign money may be spent only on things related to political or government business, though it is permissible to take a spouse along on a trip. Luxury journeys paid for with such funds are typically justified as educational excursions -- campaign finance reformers call them junkets -- organized by special interest groups, most with business in the Capitol.

The state's official ethics watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, recently enacted new rules requiring politicians to better explain their expenses in public disclosures, after media reports of lavish voyages around the world got their attention. But the rules have not curbed spending on luxuries.

The lawmakers' Hawaiian trip was for a conference sponsored mostly by business associations and corporations. Half of each day was spent discussing public policy issues, according to the conference agenda; the rest was free for golf, tennis, snorkeling and shopping. Among those in attendance were state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and his wife.

Over the last three months, Calderon's donors also footed the bill for eight nights at Pebble Beach Lodge for an insurance conference; covered a $91-per-person holiday dinner for six staffers at the Dal Rae Restaurant in Pico Rivera; and paid for a $296 meal at the Pacific Dining Car in Los Angeles. Contributors also treated him to a visit to Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa and a $669 bill at the Scottsdale Luxury Suites.

"No tax dollars are attached to the expenses," Calderon said. "The events and these conferences prove very valuable."

Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) and his wife spent $4,368 at the Fairmont Maui while attending the same conference as Calderon. And Assemblyman Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) and his chief of staff spent more than $3,500 in November to join other lawmakers on a trip to China, where visits to museums and landmarks were interspersed with meetings related to earthquakes, flood control and high-speed rail.

And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger held a retreat for 13 senior staffers at Harlan Estate Winery, "set in the western hills of Oakville, rising above the fabled Napa Valley benchlands," according to its website, which adds: "The estate is over 240 acres of natural splendor; oak-studded knolls and valleys."

The winery's owner, Bill Harlan, covered the $12,100 cost of the retreat. Vintners are working to stop an increase in taxes on alcohol proposed by the governor to help close the state's budget gap.

Derek Cressman, regional director of California Common Cause, says it is all in bad taste.

"It's particularly galling, when taxpayers are tightening their own belts, for them to see politicians using slush funds to travel the world living the lifestyles of the rich and famous," he said.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego) left for India with her husband in mid-November as the state deficit ballooned. The trip, taken by several lawmakers, included a full day to visit the Taj Mahal, an afternoon touring the cathedrals in the old town of Goa and stays at some of the country's finest hotels, including the Mumbai Four Seasons.

"The trips she has taken have all been with pretty significant purpose," said John Ferrera, Ducheny's chief of staff.

He said Ducheny went to India in response to a visit to California by Indian officials who wanted to learn more about how others deal with governmental problems.

Ducheny also used campaign funds to fly with her husband to the Maui conference and to a meeting of state officials in Monterrey, Mexico. She accumulated $41,000 in expenses in three months.

Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), Ron Calderon's brother, spent $2,200 during the first week in October to attend a conference on the environment at an Ojai spa and the same insurance-industry event his brother went to at Pebble Beach. More than $500 was spent on dinner for four at the swank Peppoli at Pebble Beach.

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