Reporting from Sacramento — When Republican state legislators decided last month that they needed to escape Sacramento and kick back in a more relaxed environment to hash out issues, they headed for a luxury beach resort in Santa Barbara.
Such sojourns don't come cheap, so oil and tobacco firms and other companies that are pressing an agenda in the Capitol funneled $120,000 to a group that picked up much of the tab. About 25 Republican senators and Assembly members and a dozen aides attended the retreat at Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort.
The three-day event featured a budget briefing and included a tour of the nearby Ronald Reagan ranch, gift bags worth up to $299 each, gourmet meals and a cocktail reception where lawmakers mingled with a dozen lobbyists.
Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta solicited the $120,000 from 11 trade groups and businesses including Anthem Blue Cross, tobacco company Altria and oil firms Chevron and Plains Exploration & Production. Another contributor was the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, which operates a casino in Temecula under a compact with the state.
The donations were made through a nonprofit called the Council for Legislative Excellence, which is headed by the wife of a legislative aide, according to the organization's most recent tax filing.
Legislators said the financial arrangement allowed the retreat to be held without cost to the state. But it drew objections from Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, who likened it to "money laundering." The contributions amounted to "buying access by interested parties through a third-party conduit," Feng said.
Hollingsworth did not return calls from The Times, and his representatives declined to say what the retreat cost. But his spokesman Hector Barajas said he believes some money was left over and would be applied toward future events. Barajas also noted that leaders from both parties, including the governor, do similar fundraising.
"There is a firewall between legislation and money raised for various events," he said.
Democratic lawmakers solicited $14,000 in 2008 to cover gourmet meals, rooms and cocktails for a retreat at a wine country hotel that 24 of them attended. The event included a reception that also drew eight Senate Republicans. The money came from the California Professional Firefighters, the Consumer Attorneys of California and the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council.
Barajas said most of the Republican lawmakers paid for their own hotel rooms in Santa Barbara, many from accounts made up of political contributions. The Council for Legislative Excellence helped rent meeting rooms and pay for meals and receptions, he said.
The council also gave those who attended the retreat a gift bag that included a $150 briefcase, cuff links for the men and charm bracelets for the women, one lawmaker said.
Some legislators said they did not know who footed the bill for the retreat and did not feel pressured by lobbyists who attended.
"I didn't know who paid for it," said state Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks). The important thing, he said, is that all financial details be disclosed publicly, "and let the people decide what they think about it."
Lawmakers said they expect a written account of the gifts so they can properly report the information.
Lobbyists who attended the reception included a representative of Chevron, according to company spokesman Sean Comey. Chevron and Altria were the biggest donors, giving $25,000 each to the council. Both actively lobby lawmakers on bills before the Legislature.
Altria has for years fought proposals to raise the state's tobacco tax. The latest such proposal died last year in a legislative committee after Republicans voted against it.
Chevron and other oil companies have long battled a proposed oil-extraction tax. One such proposal was vetoed last year by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Asked why Chevron donated the money for the retreat, Comey said, "We wanted to attend the event and we made the contribution." He added that the firm supports such conferences for legislators of both parties "to facilitate their ability to reinvigorate the economy."
Plains Exploration would have been the major benefactor of a bill last year to open the door to more oil drilling in the Tranquillon Ridge field off the coast of Santa Barbara County. Fourteen of the 15 Republicans in the state Senate voted for the legislation. The bill failed, but the proposal is back in Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
The company sent a representative to the retreat "to get the message out on the Tranquillon Ridge project," Plains Exploration spokesman Steve Rusch said.