Ethics Law Bars Solis From Keeping Courage Award

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State Sen. Hilda Solis won the "Profile in Courage" award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation last month, including a silver lantern worth up to $10,000.

But a Watergate-era anti-corruption law in California is preventing her from accepting the elegant Tiffany lantern, unless she pays all but $300 for it.

"There's no way I'd be able to do that," said the Democratic lawmaker from La Puente, the first woman to win the honor for political courage in public service.

She hefted the lantern at an awards ceremony May 22 at the Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, posed for a photo with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, but couldn't take the prize home to California.

So the quiet-spoken Solis will ask the state Fair Political Practices Commission today for a special ruling that would let her accept the lantern in an exception to the law's prohibition against officeholders' accepting gifts valued at more than $300.

The five-member commission, enforcer of the 1974 California Political Reform Act, has not indicated how it may rule. It has granted limited exceptions in the past.

The library foundation chose Solis for its 11th annual award for her sponsorship of a 1997 "environmental justice" bill.

Believed to be the first bill of its kind in the country, the measure, SB 1113, was intended to protect vulnerable minority and low-income communities from the potentially harmful health affects of proposed new landfills and pollution sources in neighborhoods saturated with waste sites.

The Legislature approved the bill over the heavy lobbying of a variety of powerful business interests, water contractors and state government agencies. It was vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. Last year, Gov. Gray Davis signed a weakened version.

The Kennedy Library Foundation decided Solis met the standards of political bravery outlined in the late president's 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage."

In the book, Kennedy characterized courageous politicians as those whose "abiding loyalty to their nation triumphed over all personal and political considerations" and who demonstrated the "real meaning of courage and a real faith in democracy."

Previous winners have included U.S. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, for their advocacy of campaign finance reform.

In addition to the silver lantern, Solis' award included a $25,000 prize. She has agreed to give it to three Southern California environmental protection organizations.

But for Solis, the first Latina elected to the California Senate and now a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, the lantern is an entirely different matter.

"It is the symbol and the very essence of this award," she told the commission in a letter a few days before the Boston ceremony. "The honor would not be complete without it."

At the core of the issue is a provision against conflicts of interest in the law that prohibits California officeholders from accepting gifts worth more than $300 from people or interests that may seek to influence them.

The commission may modify certain provisions, provided the changes advance the purposes of the law.

"In my opinion, this [lantern] would not cause a conflict of interest," Solis said this week.

She noted that the nonprofit Kennedy Library Foundation is in Boston and does not lobby in California or have business before the California Legislature.

In a legal analysis prepared for the commission, general counsel Kathleen Gnekow said the law appears to cut two ways. Under a "plain meaning" interpretation, Solis would be prohibited as an elected official from an existing exemption that allows officials to keep funds won in "bona fide" competitions such as the lottery.

On the other hand, Gnekow said, applying the gift restrictions to Solis in this case creates a "harsh result" that is not in sync with the purposes of the gift limits.

"Under such a rote application of the gift statutes, a California elected official who won a Nobel prize might not be able to accept it," she said, in effect "penalizing the official for holding public office."

In the case of the lantern, Gnekow said, the commission could create an exception that could be viewed as recognizing "the very kind of activity which the Political Reform Act is designed to promote, i.e., a governmental officer acting against personal interests for the benefit of the represented community."

But she also cautioned that such an exception could be open to abuse. She warned that special interest nonprofit organizations "could develop creative awards to provide cash to the California legislator with the best record on agriculture, pharmaceuticals, higher education, etc."

In a series of proposed options, the analysis said the commission could rule that acceptance of the lantern violated the conflict-of-interest rules. Alternatively, it could allow Solis to keep the $25,000, or just the lantern.

As a third option, she said, the commission could amend the current "lottery" exemption to include awards such as Kennedy lantern.

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