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The Nuñez lesson

The ex-speaker's lavish spending wasn't illegal, a state panel finds. But is not being a crook enough?

October 29, 2009

Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez has every reason to feel pleased that a state panel probing his lavish spending cleared him of any illegal activity. We're pleased as well; we generally liked Nunez as speaker, aside from some occasional political overreaching, and found him to be a worthy and effective counterweight in the capital to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Nor are we surprised at the outcome of the investigation, which was conducted by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. We never saw any evidence that Nunez was a crook.

But not being a crook is a fairly low standard. Two years ago, we were appalled by news reports about the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations that he spent on luxury hotels, fine wines and pricey gifts -- such as the $5,149 he spent on a "meeting" at a wine cellar in the Bordeaux region of France and the $2,562 he spent on "office expenses" at Louis Vuitton in Paris. We were equally unhappy with his practice of steering money from donors to a charity that spent the largesse to boost his political profile.

The speaker spent all that donor money on legislative, governmental and political purposes that were deemed by the commission to be legitimate under California law -- but deemed by many Californians to be providing him with a cushy lifestyle that otherwise would have been unaffordable to a person with his salary. No one should begrudge him the normal perks of office, but his constituents -- and those of every other politician living high on the hog on donor money -- are right to wonder whether their interests can keep pace with those of the big-bucks contributors that pay for all the fancy food and accommodations. It's bad enough that politicians are so beholden to donors for their jobs. It's troubling in the extreme when they become beholden to them as well for their quality of life.

At best, Nunez forgot that he was wining and dining in France, Italy and Spain only because voters in his home district put him in a position of power and because other Assembly Democrats made him their leader -- and because special interests were willing to pay lots of money for access to someone with such clout. The fact that he's not a crook doesn't stop reasonable people from questioning whether he was really working for the voters who put him in office or instead for the donors who spared him the humiliation of flying coach. He wasn't alone -- Schwarzenegger has set new records for raking in political cash and spending it on luxe travel, and this page doesn't intend to let him forget it. But as speaker, Nunez also deserved scrutiny. The publicity about his over-the-top spending was followed by new rules on disclosure, and that's a good thing.

Nunez could rightly object that two years is far too long to labor under the cloud of an ethics probe. To go much faster, though, the Fair Political Practices Commission would need additional resources from lawmakers. Too bad the panel can't catch their attention with a fat donation that they could spend on a trip to Bordeaux.

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