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Ex-Assembly Speaker Nuñez did not misuse campaign funds, board rules

The California ethics watchdog also clears the L.A. Democrat of illegal activity in funneling funds from firms and groups with business in the Capitol to a charity that used them on behalf of Nuñez.

October 28, 2009|Evan Halper

SACRAMENTO — Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez broke no state laws when he spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds on luxury travel around the world, gifts at high-end boutiques and meals at exclusive restaurants, the state's ethics watchdog has ruled.

The Fair Political Practices Commission also has cleared the Los Angeles Democrat of any illegal activity in funneling nearly $300,000 from companies and organizations with business in the Capitol to a charity that spent it on events that helped him politically.

The commission's inquiries into Nunez's spending were triggered by complaints filed by activist groups following articles in The Times in 2007 that detailed his use of campaign accounts.

The California Term Limits Defense Fund filed a complaint charging that $155,000 in expenditures Nunez made between January 2005 and June 2007 on travel, dining and gifts had no legitimate political, legislative or government purpose, as the law requires.

Among the items Nunez charged to his campaign account were $5,149 for what he reported as a meeting at Cave L'Avant Garde wine cellar in the Bordeaux region of France; $2,562 for "office expenses" at Louis Vuitton in Paris; and $848 for a "meeting" at the renowned French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley.

Following The Times' articles, the commission implemented guidelines requiring lawmakers to more fully disclose the details of travel and other expenses and the precise reasons for them.

In a letter to Nunez made public Tuesday, commission attorney Melody Mathay said an initial review concluded that the spending was probably "legitimate and would not violate the personal use laws. Expenditures for items such as florists, food, gifts, meetings, fundraising, and travel are routinely made by many candidates and officeholders using campaign funds" and "are reasonably related to a political, legislative or government purpose."

Even if Nunez received "substantial personal benefit," Mathay said, he would probably be able to make the case that the payments were tied to his job. The FPPC thus decided not to conduct an in-depth investigation, the letter said.

Nunez, reached by phone, expressed gratitude for the ruling and said the spending controversy had derailed his political career.

"My reputation took a huge hit," he said. "But I regained my integrity. That I am going to keep forever."

Nunez, who since leaving office has been a public affairs consultant, said he regretted some of the ways he handled campaign money, including allowing staff members to use the funds as they saw fit.

"I'm not going to say that if I had another crack at this I wouldn't do things differently," he said. "If I had entertained in a more modest fashion I would have been able to keep some of this from getting out of proportion. . . . This was a huge blow to my image at a time when I was ascending as a strong political figure. This thing almost unilaterally put me on the sidelines."

The second complaint against Nunez, filed by the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog, concerned his use of a small charity as a conduit to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate donations on events such as Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez's Toy Drive and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez's Soccerfest. The charity had not filed a tax return in two years and was therefore operating illegally, according to state tax authorities.

The commission said that regardless of the charity's' standing with tax authorities, Nunez did not violate state ethics laws.

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evan.halper@latimes.com

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