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Duvall incident spotlights politicians' perks in capital

Beyond lavish meals with fine wines, special interests offer overseas junkets, pro basketball games, weekends at spas and golf resorts and in some cases sex.

September 11, 2009|Eric Bailey and Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — For many who join the select club of 120 known as the California Legislature, everything changes. Once inside, they find an army of lobbyists and corporate executives at their disposal, more than eager to shower them with food, drink, travel and -- in some cases -- sex.

The case of Michael Duvall, the 54-year-old Yorba Linda assemblyman who resigned Wednesday after the disclosure that he bragged over an open microphone of apparent sexual trysts, is a window into a world in which those who vie to sit through dreary legislative meetings can be rewarded in more bacchanalian ways.

Beyond lavish meals with fine wines, special interests offer overseas junkets, pro basketball games and weekends at spas and golf resorts that pair their lobbyists with lawmakers.

"When you're in Sacramento, the entire city is dedicated to making you feel important and special," said Don Perata, a former state Senate leader.

An investigation of Duvall's actions is under way. He was vice chairman of a utilities committee, and the probe centers on his alleged relationship with a lobbyist for Sempra Energy -- possibly one of the women referred to in the videotape that captured him graphically describing his sexual encounters.

Sempra said its employee has denied an affair but the company is investigating. Duvall issued a statement Thursday saying that his resignation did not amount to an admission of an illicit relationship.

Also on Thursday, Assemblyman Jeff Miller of Corona, the fellow Republican who listened to Duvall's tales at a lull in a legislative hearing in July, was stripped of his post on the Assembly ethics panel, which is conducting the investigation.

Meanwhile, advocates for government accountability demanded greater disclosure of contacts between lawmakers and lobbyists, and called on a lobbyists' association to expel anyone who has had sex with an official he or she is attempting to influence.

Jackson Gualco, head of the Institute of Governmental Advocates, a Sacramento trade group representing lobbyists, said the organization already has a strict code of conduct to prevent inappropriate relationships, and noted that the state has strict rules requiring disclosure of lobbyist activities as well as regular ethics training.

"There are some good checks and balances," Gualco said.

But fraternization between lawmakers and lobbyists has been part of Sacramento life for decades, as it is in other state capitals and in Washington, D.C.

In 1974, Californians created the Political Reform Act by approving Proposition 9, which restricts lobbyists to spending no more than $10 a month entertaining an individual lawmaker. And in the 1980s, legislators were earning thousands of dollars giving speeches to companies with interests at the Capitol.

After an FBI sting implicated some of them in trading votes for income, Californians passed a ballot measure banning the practice of accepting honoraria.

Still, examples abound of the steps that lobbyists, with their corporate employers footing the bills, take to gain chummy access to lawmakers and exert influence.

At the annual "Speaker's Cup" at Pebble Beach this year, dozens of lobbyists had a chance to rub elbows with Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

One lobbyist, Darius Anderson, has been known for arranging trips to Cuba.

The state prison guards' union has sponsored lawmakers' voyages to Maui, paying for some of their expenses there.

At least one company, BP America, has set up an automated hotline that lawmakers and staff can call for freebies to concerts, shows and sports events. Legislators may even "ask a member of their own staff to call on their behalf," BP's phone message says. The firm has spent more than $39,000 on giveaways since 2008.

One of the biggest spenders in Sacramento is AT&T, which has e-mail addresses that lawmakers and their staffs use to request tickets. The company reported $53,000 worth of giveaways in the first half of 2009, including a Britney Spears concert and seats at a Lakers playoff game.

Doug Heller, executive director of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said the Duvall incident shows that lobbyists are increasingly pushing the envelope: the rise of "extreme lobbying," he calls it.

"I'm afraid this is not a once-in-a decade anomaly," Heller said.

Common Cause noted that Sempra Energy spent $800,000 lobbying California government in the first half of this year and was interested in 170 pieces of legislation. The firm, which frequently takes lawmakers and other officials to concerts and other events, has contributed $4.2 million to political campaigns in California since 2006.

That sum includes a relatively small $2,800 to Duvall, who voted Sempra's way on at least four bills this year dealing with renewable energy and electricity rates.

Duvall, who owns an insurance company, reported $2,000 in gifts from special interests in 2008, including meals, drinks, concert tickets and a Bluetooth headset, but nothing from Sempra.

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