California legislators flying to Maui to meet with special interests

California lawmakers will fly to Maui for conferences subsidized by special interests that lobby them

With the dust still settling from last week's election, two dozen state lawmakers are flying to luxury resorts in Hawaii for conferences subsidized and attended by interests that lobby the Legislature: oil companies, public employee unions, drug and tobacco firms, and others.

Conference organizers said the events, on the island of Maui, provide a relaxed setting in which elected officials and issue experts can discuss solutions to some of the state's most vexing problems.

"Outside the partisan atmosphere of Sacramento, legislators get to know each other, find common ground and return to Sacramento with a commitment to work together," said Daniel Howle, an executive with pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and an organizer of a five-day conference set to begin Sunday at the Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel in Wailea.

A nonprofit group covers the $350-a-night cost of lodging for legislators and some other expenses. Many lawmakers use their campaign accounts to pay for airfare.

Ethics advocates say it is wrong for corporate executives to pick up the tab so they can schmooze with lawmakers out of public view just before the next legislative session begins.

The annual conferences have become an "unwelcome tradition," said Sarah Swanbeck, a legislative affairs representative of California Common Cause who called for stricter limits — even a ban — on such conferences.

The timing of this year's event is especially poor, she said, because several state senators were hit with criminal charges this year, two of them involving allegations of corruption.

"After a year marked by numerous ethics scandals in the state Legislature, voters are looking for lawmakers to fight back against corruption, not participate in it," she said.

The nonprofit Independent Voter Project, the sponsor of next week's conference, paid an average of $2,500 in expenses per lawmaker at last year's gathering.

The group gets its money from about 24 entities, many putting up at least $7,500. They include Occidental Petroleum Corp., the Western State Petroleum Assn., Eli Lilly, the Altria tobacco firm, the California Cable and Telecommunications Assn., the state prison guards union and the California Distributors Assn., which represents distributors of tobacco and other products.

Legislators scheduled to attend this year's event, according to Howle, include Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen of Modesto, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, former Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), former Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare, Assemblyman Bob Wieckoski (D-Fremont) and Assemblyman Manuel V. Perez (D-Coachella).

Wieckoski and Olsen confirmed their participation; the others did not return calls from The Times.

Olsen looks forward to hearing new ideas for improving the state, said her spokeswoman, Amanda Fulkerson.

The conference "is an opportunity to talk with colleagues and experts from all parts of the political spectrum about public policy solutions that achieve her caucus' goals of a better California for all," Fulkerson said in a statement.

The Independent Voter Project was formed by political and business leaders. Its mission is to seek improvements in state government and the electoral process. It was the prime proponent of the initiative voters passed to change California's primary election system to the open "top-two" process.

A smaller number of other legislators are expected to attend a conference put on by the Pacific Policy Research Foundation from Nov. 19-23 at the Grand Wailea Hotel in Maui, which features a towering waterfall, several pools and a gourmet restaurant on stilts over a clear lagoon.

Former Republican state Sen. Roy Ashburn, a member of the foundation board, said it was the group's policy not to disclose the names of legislators or sponsors at the conference. The Times has reported that past contributors to the foundation have included Pacific Gas & Electric, Eli Lilly and Amgen.

"If you start publishing the names of the participants, it might dissuade those folks who otherwise recognize that there is a tremendous public service in the education and issue discussions that are facilitated by our foundation," Ashburn said in an interview.

Howle confirmed the names of some sponsors returning to his conference this year but would not provide a complete list before the event.

The conferences are being held a little more than a month after Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have required nonprofits paying for travel to such events to disclose the donors that finance them.

A better step, said Swanbeck, "would be much stricter limits on the travel of lawmakers to these conferences, or an outright ban."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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