Politics

Golfing, tequila and spa treatments: These are the gifts given to California lawmakers in 2015

State legislators accepted more than $892,000 in gifts last year, including foreign trips, expensive dinners, concert and sports tickets, golf games, spa treatments, Disneyland admissions and bottles of tequila and wine, according to filings released Wednesday.

Lawmakers had their expenses covered by others for educational and trade trips to France, China, Argentina, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Mexico and Israel.

In fact, travel costs dominate the gift tallies from last year with a large number of lawmakers deciding to fly overseas for conferences or policy meetings paid for entirely by influential interest groups and foundations.

The travel included 21 lawmakers who attended a conference in Maui in November at a cost of about $3,000 per person, paid for by a nonprofit group funded by oil and tobacco firms and other interests lobbying the Legislature.

The flood of gifts, especially from groups tied to interests seeking favorable treatment at the Capitol, raises red flags for ethics experts including Bob Stern, former general counsel for the Fair Political Practices Commission and a co-author of the state Political Reform Act.

“The people that make these gifts are trying to influence legislators and create goodwill, and clearly it does,” Stern said. “The average citizen doesn’t get these gifts. It’s only when you are in a position of power that you get these gifts.”

The total value of gifts is up by about $50,000 from 2014. A group with interest in promoting climate change policy helped send a large delegation of legislators led by Gov. Jerry Brown to a United Nations summit on climate change held in Paris in December.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) had $4,077 of his travel expenses to Paris covered by the Climate Action Reserve, which advocates for solutions to climate change.

In all, De León received $30,200 in gifts, among the most of any lawmaker. Much of it was for educational trips to Japan, Mexico and Australia.

The $14,055 cost for de Leon’s Australian trip to look for drought solutions was covered by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a San Francisco think tank financed by special interests including PG&E, Shell, the State Building and Construction Trades Council and Chevron.

Claire Conlon, a spokeswoman for De León, defended both the travel and the way it is financed. 

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"As elected representatives of the world's seventh-largest economy and a gateway to international trade corridors, building global relationships and studying best practices in other countries is an essential part of the job description," she said. The funding arrangements with "respected nonprofits" mean "not a single taxpayer dollar is being spent," she added.

De León also reported gifts of USC football tickets, bottles of tequila, meals and a tie. The disclosure forms that lawmakers must file annually do not require detailed descriptions of the gifts, so there is no way to know the brand of tequila or color of the tie.

Sen. Benjamin Allen (D-Santa Monica) reported receiving $37,900 in gifts, the most of any lawmaker, much of it to cover the cost of educational trips to China and Argentina.

“I represent a diverse coastal district with thousands of globally focused employers creating good jobs for our local economy,” Allen said. “The trips involved important public policy, environmental, economic and cultural exchanges, and I was honored to serve as part of these educational legislative delegations. Not a single taxpayer dollar was spent, and I fully reported and disclosed all such travel.”

Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) reported $31,100 in gifts, including expenses for trips to Singapore and Australia. He also received more than $1,100 in green fees for golf paid for by supporters including the prison guards union and the California Independent Petroleum Assn.

A spa treatment, costing $396, was provided to Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) by the Legislative Black Caucus.

In the Assembly, Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) received many gifts, $25,332 worth and mostly involving overseas travel. Her $8.500 trip to Taiwan was paid for by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Foundation and her $14,348 trip to Australia with De León was covered by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.

Evan Low (D-Campbell) received more than $31,000 in gifts, including a trip to China paid for by a group called U.S.-Asia Innovative Gateway, and a trip to Newport Beach paid for by the California Independent Petroleum Assn. He also received a $287 ticket to a Giants baseball game from PG&E.

Many of the gifts received by lawmakers would have been prohibited by legislation the governor vetoed two years ago. The bill would have banned nontravel gifts over $200, and barred tickets to amusement parks, professional sports games and concerts, as well as green fees for golf.

The public can read each legislator’s gift report on the FPPC website

In vetoing the gifts bill, Brown wrote that it would be “adding further complexity without commensurate benefit. Proper disclosure, as already provided by the law, should be sufficient to guard against undue influence.”

The size of some of the gifts received last year troubled Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

“It's fair to ask public officials to forgo gifts over certain thresholds,” she said.

A new bill proposes to outlaw travel gifts like the annual Maui convention put on by the Independent Voter Project, which received financing for the event from groups including the Western State Petroleum Assn., Shell Oil, Sempra, tobacco giant Altria, AT&T, the California Cable and Telecommunications Assn. and Koch Industries.

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