Assemblywoman Sunny Mojonnier accepted a $10,000 reward for leaving her sickbed to vote for a bill.
Assemblyman Peter Chacon was paid $7,500 to sit still while a group that opposed a measure he was carrying “educated” him about the issue.
Sen. Wadie Deddeh collected $10,000 for 10 brief appearances before students at San Diego City College.
The trio of San Diego lawmakers accepted the extra cash in the three years before California voters enacted Proposition 73, the political finance measure that now limits legislators’ speaking fees or honorariums to $1,000 each year from each source.
But examples like that of Mojonnier, Chacon and Deddeh have convinced some lawmakers and political reformers that the new limit is not strict enough. Many believe the time has come to ban all speaking fees, most of which come from sources that are seeking to influence the Legislature. Often, legislators are paid the money not for speeches but simply for meeting privately with a small group or attending a cocktail reception.
'$1,000 Is a Lot of Money’
“A thousand dollars is a lot of money to a lot of people,” said John Larson, chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission. “Our feeling is that it still leaves the impression of impropriety. If that’s the case, why not just say no?”
The 11 members of San Diego County’s legislative delegation have not been among the state’s leaders in receiving speaking fees. Combined, their total of $83,861 for 1987 and 1988 is less than half of what Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) earned by himself during the most recent two-year legislative session.
But what the San Diego delegation lacks in quantity it has made up in flair, accepting money in a way that has attracted statewide attention each of the past three years. The examples:
- In 1986, Deddeh, a Bonita Democrat, was paid $10,000 by the San Diego Community College District Foundation for 10 speaking engagements. He spoke to seven classes on American government, two groups of graduating students and a group of senior citizens attending a career day sponsored by the school.
The payments outraged faculty leaders, who complained that Deddeh, as an elected official, should be willing to discuss American government with students without charging the college for his time. Deddeh defended his relationship with the college but has not spoken for money at the school since.
- In 1987, Mojonnier, an Encinitas Republican, was given a $10,000 “legislator of the year” award by the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. Leaders of the prison guards group said they gave the money to Mojonnier, who had been ill, for leaving her sickbed to vote on a bill that placed a prison in Los Angeles County.
Mojonnier insisted the money was fair payment for the speech she gave when she accepted the award at the association’s annual convention. But the payment was far greater than any others Mojonnier has received in the six years she has been in the Legislature. Controversy over the exchange prompted the prison guards to abandon their plan to make the payment an annual event.
- In 1988, Chacon, a San Diego Democrat, was paid $7,500 by the California Check Cashers Assn. to tour several check-cashing stores and meet with the group’s board of directors. At the time, Chacon was carrying a bill to limit the fees the check cashers could charge.
Chacon dropped the bill in committee on the same day that he received $4,000 from the check cashers group. He received another $3,500 three months later. Chacon said the timing of the first payment was a “coincidence” and insists that the money did not influence his action. But he now says he favors a ban on honorariums.
Together, Deddeh, Chacon and Mojonnier accounted for nearly half of the fees collected by the San Diego delegation in 1987 and 1988. Most members from the county take in only a small amount each year.
‘Not Worth the Trouble’
Former Sen. Jim Ellis (R-San Diego) had a policy of not accepting money for his speeches. Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) accepts very few such payments. But she does ask those who want to pay her for speaking to instead contribute to a favorite charity, usually the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation.
“It’s not worth the trouble,” Killea said of the honorariums. “I’m in the fortunate position of not depending on that to pay my bills. Rather than getting all involved in getting that income, paying income tax on it, I’d rather go ahead and have them give the money to the charities I really want to give to. They get the full benefit of it and it isn’t taxed. It’s a way of tweaking Uncle Sam.”
Soon, Killea may not have a choice. At least two bills have been introduced this year to ban honorariums. One of the bills was written by Assemblyman Ted Lempert, a freshman Democrat from San Mateo who won an upset election in November as a candidate who promised to clean up the Legislature. The other bill is by Assembly Republican Leader Ross Johnson of La Habra, who was a co-author of Proposition 73, the political finance measure that was approved by the voters last year.
“I think we need to tighten down a lot further,” Johnson said. “There have been some obvious examples where the amount of these so-called speaking fees certainly raises legitimate questions. I think we need to abandon them.”
Press ‘Milked This Issue to Death’
Chacon and Deddeh said they would support the move to ban the fees. Deddeh made it clear that he arrived at his position more from exasperation than anything else. He said he has grown weary of the annual newspaper stories about the groups from which he is accepting money. He said the press has “milked this issue to death” and vowed to support a ban on honorariums “to make life easier for everybody.”
Deddeh brushed off questions about $1,500 he was paid in 1987 and $1,000 in 1988 for speeches to the California Assn. of Collectors, a bill-collectors trade group. Deddeh has written legislation for the organization the past two years, including a measure he is writing now that would loosen state regulation of bill collectors and make it more difficult for the public to obtain the collectors’ home addresses and phone numbers.
Deddeh described the bill as “technical, corrective legislation” and pointed out that past measures he carried for the group passed the Legislature without a single dissenting vote. He said he carried the bills not because of the money he received but because he was requested to do so by the group’s lobbyist, former Sen. Bob Wilson, who also lobbies for the community college district.
“Bob Wilson was a seatmate of mine for five years. He is a personal friend, he comes to me and says, ‘Would you carry this?’ ” Deddeh said. “I said I would.”
Deddeh said he has never pressured anyone into giving him money for a speech or panel discussion.
“Probably, over my 23 years in the Legislature, I have given 3,000 to 4,000 speeches, lectures, seminars, without any money in return for that,” Deddeh said. “I wouldn’t ask for that. I don’t ask for that. But if I’m going to give a speech, and someone says here is $500 or $1,000, I’m not going to turn it down. I’m going to take it.”
Chacon, similarly, said inquiries about the money he receives are not worth the aggravation. He said the perception of conflict of interest in such exchanges “does not do anything to enhance the respectability” of the Legislature.
“Many of the commentaries written about our honorariums are right in at least one respect: The perception by the public is that there is a quid pro quo, even when there isn’t,” Chacon said. “There certainly wasn’t in my case. But the perception is bad.”
Chacon said he believes the ban on honorariums should be linked to an increase in legislative salaries. Lawmakers now are paid $40,816 a year, plus $88 a day, tax-free, for living expenses while the Legislature is in session.
‘Doesn’t Really Matter’
“I don’t think California legislators are paid enough, especially when you consider that if this state were a country, it would have the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Chacon said. But he said he would vote for a ban on speaking fees even if no pay raise were offered with it.
Mojonnier, who collected no honorariums last year after being criticized for taking the $10,000 from the prison guards, said she does not care if the Legislature bans honorariums. She said her lack of speaking fees during 1988 was happenstance, not the result of a conscious decision to avoid speaking for money.
“It doesn’t really matter to me one way or another,” Mojonnier said. “I don’t get a lot. So it doesn’t matter. My position would have to depend on exactly what the bill said.”
One area lawmaker who opposes further regulation of legislators’ outside income is Sen. Larry Stirling (R-San Diego). Stirling, who collected nearly $12,000 in speaking fees during 1987 and 1988, said he favors a minimum of limits on political finances and a maximum of exposure through the required reporting of such transactions.
“I say just report it, disclose it, and let the press and your opponents and the public make what they want of it,” Stirling said. Endless tinkering with the political finance laws, he said, does not accomplish anything “except to further erode the public’s confidence in the electoral process.”
Stirling suggested that elected officials rarely change their behavior because of a law or a gift or contribution from a special interest.
“These things do not affect people’s character,” he said. “Your character is formed by the time you are 15 or 16 years old. It doesn’t change when you get to the Legislature.”