Taken for a ride on Air Arnold

Politics and GovernmentSocial IssuesGovernmentState BudgetsCharityRegional Authority

HOW SELFISH of me not to have noticed. I had absolutely no idea that Arnold Schwarzenegger was so hard up. He's practically the Oliver Twist of governors. He's so needy that there's a charity devoted almost exclusively to helping him out.

Thanks to that charity, the California State Protocol Foundation, our governor does not face the dehumanizing prospect of sleeping in a single at a Sheraton when he travels overseas. Instead, he can repose in a four-star, four-figure hotel suite. Nor does he have to suffer the torments of the damned by flying commercial to get there — he can zoom off in a Gulfstream IV, or G IV to frequent fliers.

I'd love to be able to thank by name, right on this page, each and every one of the people who gave these generous handouts to our governor, but they're too modest to reveal their identities. Whoever they are, I'm sure they all have the same middle name: "Chutzpah."

There are charities, wonderful charities, dedicated to the homeless, the sick, the hungry, to children, animals and trees. A fund for millionaires using the name "charity" just risks giving all charities a bad name. (Why haven't you heard Democrats caterwauling about this? Because Schwarzenegger isn't alone. Politicians of all stripes love these nonprofits, which are sometimes nothing more than political slush funds without the public reckoning.)

As my colleague, Paul Pringle, reported this month, we don't know who's donated how much to this charity, but in nearly four years, the foundation has paid more than $3 million for whatever overseas travel bills the governor's office sends it — like Schwarzenegger's China trip, a presumed six-figure jaunt.

Most people give to charities for a warm, cozy feeling and maybe a tax write-off. Donors to the California State Protocol Foundation — oh, that name is too pompous; let's just call it Air Arnold — get so much more. If I were writing the fundraising brochure for Air Arnold, I'd tantalize prospective donors with such perks as:

•  Secrecy. Your contribution is between you and the foundation. No one can know whether you, a civic-minded donor to Air Arnold, also have some state deal in the works. You don't get that kind of privacy with political contributions; those prying reporting requirements show where every last buck comes from, and where it goes! And, unlike campaign donations, the sky's the limit on what you can give!

•  A tax break. Giving to a charity has almost no strings attached, and it's tax deductible.

•  Access. Imagine, you might even find yourself puffing on a Cohiba in the governor's fabled "smoking tent" at the historic state Capitol, or sitting a few feet from him in a G IV.

In 2003 — Schwarzenegger took office in November of that year — the foundation spent about $55,000. Since then, it's spent more than $3 million. When my fellow scribe, Pringle, tried to find out more — most charities brag about their transparency — he was told by e-mail that the skimpy legal-minimum disclosures on Air Arnold's tax returns are "sufficient to demonstrate how the foundation pursues its mission of relieving the taxpayers of the cost burden of certain government activities, especially those related to international trade and diplomacy."

How do I count the ways this is offal? " … relieving the taxpayers of the cost burden"? Donors get the same tax write-off from helping Schwarzenegger that they'd get from helping the Salvation Army. And the Air Arnold deduction does trickle down to — or out of — taxpayers' pockets. In 1981, Congress offered Nancy Reagan $50,000 to spruce up the White House; she turned it down and instead had friends chip in more than $800K in tax-deductible donations, costing taxpayers more than the check Congress offered.


In the movie "Juarez," one of my favorite scenery-chewing classics, another fine specimen of an Austrian, the Archduke Maximilian von Habsburg, played by Brian Aherne, gets promoted to emperor of Mexico, where he assures a young rebel that monarchy is better than democracy because monarchs are rich and therefore not tempted by bribes. The Mexicans shot him.


Schwarzenegger campaigned as an independent man, a rich man beyond the petty reach of "special interests," a man who said he was "not taking any money from anyone." From 2002 through 2004, his income totaled about $55 million. He already pays for the jet he flies on for business stateside; why can't he do the same overseas? Write the check, write off the G IV ride and the suite at the Mandarin as unreimbursed business expenses, and stop the carping from people like me and the president of the American Institute of Philanthropy (who told Pringle, "Why should our tax dollars subsidize his lavish lifestyle?").

The governor's salary is $206,500 a year. Schwarzenegger has made the grand gesture of not taking it. It's time he did. He can spend it on his foreign jaunts. We taxpayers came by that money honestly, and then we'll know that he did too.


Pringle filed a request under the state Public Records Act to see all the invoices the governor's office submitted to Air Arnold. He was told this week that the governor's office has no copies of them. So I suggest that the next thing Air Arnold should buy for the governor is a Xerox machine.



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