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Lobbyist Kevin Sloat's penalty falls short, ex-employee's lawyer says

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SACRAMENTO — California's political ethics agency signed off Thursday on a $133,500 fine for a lobbyist who made improper campaign contributions to elected officials, but the attorney whose lawsuit triggered the investigation is not satisfied.

The lawsuit, filed in December by a former employee of the lobbyist, described the contributions in detail and alleged that she was wrongly fired for complaining to her boss about them.

California's Fair Political Practices Commission investigated the contributions and fined the lobbyist, Kevin Sloat, for some of what the employee described: providing expensive wine, liquor and cigars at lavish fundraisers held at his home for lawmakers' campaigns.

State law bars lobbyists, who are paid to influence the crafting of legislation and public policy in Sacramento, from making or arranging donations or costly gifts to officeholders.

On Thursday, the attorney for Rhonda Smira, the lobbyist's former employee, criticized the commission for not addressing other allegations in the lawsuit.

Smira's court filing said Sloat and his firm arranged free golf games for lawmakers at a course run by a client, helped legislators get sports and concert tickets, and assisted one state assemblyman in buying art at a deep discount.

"I think Mr. Sloat should be held accountable for all of his actions and not just some of them, which is what the FPPC is deciding to do," said the lawyer, Jesse Ortiz.

The commission's chief of enforcement said the decision not to pursue the additional allegations came after he and his investigators interviewed Smira and pored over emails and other documents she provided.

"We thoroughly investigated all issues and pursued fines for every violation we identified," said the enforcement officer, Gary Winuk.

Smira said in her lawsuit that as a Sloat employee, she was directed to arrange free golf games and concert tickets for legislators at a golf course and casino in Northern California.

Ortiz and Winuk identified the resort as one run by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, an Indian tribe Sloat represents. Winuk said some legislators' golfing costs were covered by the tribe as permissible fundraising donations.

In other cases, Winuk said, the legislators were simply given contact information.

"There were no violations by Mr. Sloat or his firm related to Yocha Dehe golf games," Winuk said.

The lawsuit also alleges that an assemblyman received a gift when Sloat made arrangements with a Cuban artist to sell the lawmaker a painting at "nearly 50% below the asking price." "The price was not available to any member of the general public," the suit says.

Ortiz said the lawmaker who bought the painting was Assemblyman Isadore Hall III (D-Compton), whose required financial disclosures to the state do not list any gift of a discounted painting.

Winuk called the value of art "subjective" and said the issue of a discount would be between Hall and the artist.

"I didn't see any evidence to suggest that there was a discount given that was arranged by Sloat. Absent that, there was no violation," Winuk said.

"There was no merit to the allegation," Hall spokesman Terry Schanz said Thursday.

The settlement the state made with Sloat and his firm, Sloat Higgins Jensen and Associates, makes no mention of the golf or painting.

Neither does it address another allegation in the lawsuit: that the lobbyist helped an unidentified "Senator A" attend a 2012 San Francisco 49ers-New York Giants playoff game and obtain passes to the field.

Sloat was a lobbyist for the 49ers at the time.

Ortiz identified the lawmaker as state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). Steinberg said in a statement to The Times that he bought tickets to the game for himself and family members and that access to the field was arranged by the 49ers.

Bob Lange, a spokesman for the football team, said there is no monetary value to a field pass because it cannot be bought, and therefore it need not be reported as a political gift.

Winuk said his investigators determined that in the case of the football game, there "was no evidence that supported a violation of the law."

Gov. Jerry Brown and 36 other politicians who were found to have received improper contributions from Sloat were sent letters from Winuk's agency advising them of the situation.

The letters say state investigators determined that the officials did not know that Sloat covered some fundraising expenses for them.

Bob Stern, a former general counsel for the ethics agency and coauthor of the state's Political Reform Act, said the fine Sloat received — a record for a lobbyist — is a wake-up call.

"It's going to make everybody much more careful," at least for now, Stern predicted.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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