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California lawmakers say 'No gifts, please' but accept them anyway

Of California's 23 legislators with signs on their office doors turning away gifts, only three have actually adhered to a ban. State law allows them to accept gifts, within limits.

August 25, 2012|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
  • Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) reported gifts worth more than $6,000 last year.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) reported gifts worth more than… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — Tourists milling about the Capitol on a recent day seemed impressed by the righteous stand of nearly two dozen lawmakers with signs on their doors.

The notices are largely government issue and read the same: "We appreciate your generosity; however, this office cannot accept gifts." Others are handwritten and terse: "No Gifts Please.''

Either way, most should include an asterisk.

Of the 23 legislators with signs, only three have adhered to a ban — Sen. Sam Blakeslee and Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, both Republicans from San Luis Obispo, and Assemblyman James Beall, a San Jose Democrat.

The rest took some nice gifts from special interests last year, according to disclosures required by the state (this year's booty will be reported next year). The gifts include travel to China; tickets to Disneyland, USC football and Padres baseball games; bottles of wine; and luxury seats for an IndyCar race.

Many lawmakers have political accounts they can tap for work expenses. But state law allows them to accept gifts from a lobbyist or lobbying firm if worth no more than $10, and from other sources if the value does not exceed $420. Exceptions are gifts from family members or from nonprofit groups for expenses involving conferences at which a lawmaker speaks.

Presents from interests seeking lawmakers' support "have become an accepted part of the political process, and things like this will keep happening until that changes," said Pedro Morillas, former legislative director for CalPIRG, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy group that has pushed for stricter campaign finance laws.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) said the issue crops up frequently on "lobby days," when interest groups bring large numbers of people to the Capitol to support their causes.

"I've been shocked by the number of things that come in the door during every group's lobby day," Huffman said. "I've had fruit baskets from the California citrus folks, endless books, apparel of all types. All of this stuff I don't want. I don't ask for it."

But despite the sign outside his office, he doesn't necessarily say no. Huffman reported gifts worth more than $6,000 last year.

They included dinners costing $150 and $175 from the Consumer Attorneys of California, books worth $87 from the Northern California Water Assn. and $826 in expenses for conferences from the California Foundation on the Environment and Economy, which is funded by big energy companies. He also accepted four tickets worth $1,000 for him and his family to sit in the president's suite at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma County for an IndyCar race.

Huffman said many of the meals and tickets he accepted were not gifts but simply work-related expenses paid by others. The speedway event, he said, was "just dropping by to pay my respects to one of the largest employers of the district and meet with other government officials."

Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) has a sign, too. But he accepted tickets to UCLA basketball and USC football games worth a combined $310 from the universities, as well as $5,100 in travel expenses for a trip to China from the China Academy of Railway Sciences.

De Leon took the China trip to gather facts on high-speed rail ahead of this year's vote on California's own train project, said Dan Reeves, his chief of staff.

The senator wants to discourage gifts delivered to the office because when they are handed to staffers, it can be hard to keep track of whom they are meant for and who should disclose them on government forms, Reeves said.

Sen. Michael Rubio (D-East Bakersfield) accepted a $548 iPad, with the cost shared by two interest groups to keep it under the gift limit. One of the sources is a political action committee funded by groups with business in Sacramento, including AT&T, Comcast and Indian casinos.

He also took a $400 gift card for spa treatments from a campaign group largely funded by the state prison guards union. The lawmaker, who has a no-gifts sign, did not return calls from The Times.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) accepted $1,100 in gifts last year. They included a $24 gift basket from an oil pipeline firm, Plains Exploration; a $242 dinner and shuttle ride from the California Poultry Federation; and tickets to a Josh Groban concert that came with a meal, key chain and picture frame. The value of the concert package, courtesy of Southern California Edison, was $200.

"We have the sign to discourage gifts," said Kristina Brown, a spokeswoman for Grove. The treat basket came despite the no-gifts sign, Brown said, and aides put it out for visitors to the office. "We didn't want to be rude and turn it away."

Brown said the assemblywoman has reimbursed people for gifts in the past with help from staffers who track them, but the Groban concert tickets "slipped through the cracks."

Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) said he has a no-gifts policy "in the office. However, there are circumstances when meetings occur at an outside location and a gift expense is incurred.''

He received $5,500 in gifts last year, including $132 for dinner and transportation from the Barona Band of Mission Indians, $260 in tickets to a boxing match from promoter Kathy Garcia and $170 worth of tickets to a Concours d'Elegance car show from Pebble Beach Co.

Morillas, the former CalPIRG director, said lawmakers should be able to interact with constituent groups at dinners and other events. But he suggested they use some of their $141.82 tax-free daily expense allowance to pay such bills.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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