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Trips, tickets and golf for California lawmakers highlight laxity of ethics rules

Gifts that California legislators have received from lobbyists and others would be forbidden in states such as New York and Arizona. But a proposal by a San Luis Obispo senator would greatly limit the travel, meals, cigars and more.

March 04, 2011|By Patrick McGreevy and Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — Trips to Spain and Argentina, choice Lakers tickets, gourmet meals and rounds of golf are among the $637,000 in gifts that elected state officials accepted last year, many from companies and groups that lobby in Sacramento.

The gifts, disclosed in statements of economic interest released by the state Thursday, reflect how loose ethics rules are in California compared with some other states. Acceptance of many of the gifts common in California is strictly forbidden in New York and Arizona, for example.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reported the most gifts, worth $125,000. Much of it was trade-related travel to Russia, England and Asia, paid for by a nonprofit group that raised money from corporations that supported him as governor.

State legislators accepted $478,000 in gifts, including ties, wine, cigars, Disneyland tickets, gym memberships, haircuts, cufflinks and golf clubs from groups such as the state prison guards union and drug manufacturers.

One of the biggest givers was AT&T, which lobbies state officials on legislation involving telecommunications. The firm gave a pair of Lakers tickets worth $326 to then-Sen. Gilbert Cedillo (D- Los Angeles); Bon Jovi concert tickets worth $309 to Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach); a World Series ticket worth $344 to current Sen. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego); and a round of golf at Torrey Pines worth $272 to then-Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), now a senator.

More than two dozen lawmakers reported receiving expenses for travel, to destinations that included Hawaii, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, Israel, Canada, Chile and Argentina. Some of the educational trips were paid for by nonprofit groups that get their financing from corporations seeking favors in Sacramento.

Such disclosures are leading to a fresh round of calls for restrictions on what state officials can accept.

"The amount of access you get to elected officials shouldn't be determined by how much money you have to spend on sports tickets and fancy dinners," said Pedro Morillas, a consumer advocate for the California Public Interest Research Group.

CALPIRG has supported legislation by Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) to severely curtail the gift-giving in Sacramento. His latest proposal would prohibit state officials from accepting a variety of gifts, including tickets to theme parks, sporting events, plays, concerts and horse-racing tracks, as well as spa treatments, greens fees and gift cards.

Blakeslee said the publicity over lawmakers receiving expensive gifts is "deeply corrosive" to the public trust. "We will need the support of the public, a support which can be seriously eroded by tickets to rock concerts and day spas."

He reported attending a reception by the California Tribal Business Alliance, worth $92, and reimbursing the group for that cost.

The legislator who received the most valuable gifts is Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo), with $22,495 worth of study travel to Spain and Canada paid for by a nonprofit group whose board members include representatives of Chevron Corp., Comcast Cable and Southern California Edison.

Michelle Henry, Buchanan's chief of staff, said the trips were an extension of the assemblywoman's committee work on utilities and transportation. Buchanan learned about advances in solar power and high-speed rail, in addition to meeting with foreign business leaders, Henry said.

Gov. Jerry Brown reported receiving just one gift, a $100 police-chief-installation dinner paid for by a law enforcement association while he was attorney general.

Twenty-three states, including New York and Arizona, bar gifts of more than nominal value from businesses seeking favors from the Legislature, although some have exceptions for travel and food accepted as part of fulfilling official duties, according to a survey done by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In New York, legislators are prohibited from accepting gifts worth more than the cost of a cup of coffee when it can be reasonably inferred that the gift was "intended to influence the state officer." The New York State Commission on Public Integrity fined Gov. David A. Paterson $62,125 in December for soliciting and accepting five complimentary tickets from the Yankees to a game of the 2009 World Series.

Blakeslee's new bill is still being refined. A measure that he introduced last year that would have set a $10 giving limit on firms that hire lobbyists died in committee when five Assembly members voted against it and 10 others skipped the vote.

Opponents said the gifts already have to be publicly disclosed and the law is sufficient to prevent gifts that influence officials' actions.

"The fact is it is a felony offense for a public official to perform an official act in exchange for something of value — whether $10, $5, or $1," said David Cox, a spokesman for Republican Assemblyman Jeff Miller of Corona.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes

michael.mishak@latimes.com

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