Perks flow so freely in this government town that you don’t even need to be a bigwig to land a few goodies. You just need to work for the California Legislature, or know someone who does.
Free drinks, tickets to pro basketball games or to concerts with rock and country music stars are passed out regularly by companies with a financial stake in the operations of state government. The gifts go not only to lawmakers and their families, but also to staffers, secretaries and even the sergeants-at-arms who keep order at legislative hearings.
It’s legal as long as the gifts are disclosed by the givers in reports filed every three months with the secretary of state. Lobbyists must reveal how much money they’ve passed out on behalf of the special interests they represent.
But observers such as Michael Josephson, founder of the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, say that the givers -- while not buying votes -- are fostering goodwill that can be used to their advantage someday.
“I don’t think these kinds of gifts are equated with bribery,” Josephson said, “but they’re grease.”
A review of 50 companies and groups that reported gift-giving between January and the end of September shows that the California Chamber of Commerce has so far spent the most -- $129,500 -- followed by telephone company SBC Communications, which spent $119,300 on gifts such as golf games, steak dinners and tickets to concerts at Staples Center in Los Angeles and to the Olympic track and field trials in Sacramento.
Third on the list is petroleum giant BP, which gets so many requests for seats in its Arco Arena luxury box in Sacramento that it maintains a special automated telephone line for workers lucky enough to hold the number: (916) 444-7968. So far this year, BP has given away $91,800 worth of tickets to ice-skating and circus shows, basketball games and concerts at the arena, home to the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
A recorded message on the phone line offers a lengthy instruction on how to report the gifts under state disclosure rules.
Callers are told that only lawmakers can have staff call and order tickets on their behalf. And there are limits.
“If you are requesting tickets to Kings games or other major concerts,” states a BP government relations administrator on the ticket line, “please be aware that such requests are generally limited to two tickets.”
Most of the BP tickets have gone to lawmakers and their top staff members and families, but people who handle telecommunications, travel and security for the Legislature have also taken advantage of the line.
“Is it nice to sit and drink what amounts to a free beer and eat a free hot dog?” said Senate chief sergeant-at-arms Tony Beard. “In my schedule, sure.”
In January, BP gave Beard and his wife tickets worth $193.74 to see country musician George Strait. “The staff know I’m a huge fan,” said Beard, whose duties include controlling lobbyist access to lawmakers in the Capitol.
While acknowledging that the Arco Arena events are “the kinds of things that not a lot of people get to go to,” Beard said he gives BP no more courtesy than any other special interest.
Occasionally, he said, BP staff call and ask him the best way to get a tour group through the Capitol security gates, and he’ll advise them.
“They don’t get anything I don’t give anyone else,” said Beard.
BP spokesman Dan Cummings said the ticket line has been used since BP bought Atlantic Richfield Co. in 1999 and acquired a suite at the Arco-sponsored arena. The phone message system, he said, makes it easier to handle the routine requests for tickets.
The suite can seat 18 people, said Cummings, and usually one-half to one-third of those are taken by BP employees or guests. The rest are made available to Capitol employees. He said the company has also donated tickets to groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“The focus is on being a good community neighbor and having a good relationship in the community,” said Cummings. An administrator -- not the senior BP governmental relations staff members who lobby state government officials and agencies -- determines who gets the tickets and makes arrangements for them to be picked up or delivered, he said. The phone number has been distributed around the Capitol by BP staff and word of mouth.
BP lobbyists don’t even necessarily attend the games and concerts with lawmakers, said Cummings. “It’s for them to come out and for them to enjoy themselves,” he said. “We don’t tend to talk business with them. We try to let them enjoy themselves."Josephson, who several years ago conducted ethics seminars for state lawmakers, said the free tickets create an improper sense of entitlement among public servants and give BP a roster of contacts within the Capitol.
“Somehow, calculated people are computing that on balance, [BP] gets a benefit from this,” he said. “In a world where getting an edge is part of our culture, that’s not inherently immoral. But when you’re dealing with public officials about whom there is already cynicism, all that this can do is contribute to that cynicism.”
Because Josephson sometimes has trouble even giving away his season tickets to Los Angeles Clippers games, he has some empathy for company officials trying to fill an arena suite night after night.
But that doesn’t justify the fact that among the recipients of free tickets are lawmakers who act on legislation that affects the company, he said.
“The legislators shouldn’t take it,” Josephson said. “And the company shouldn’t offer it.”
Under the Political Reform Act of 1974, lobbyists can spend no more than $10 a month on individual lawmakers or their staff. The companies they represent can spend up to $340 a year on gifts to Capitol employees, and they can spend unlimited amounts on gifts given directly to the employees’ spouses and children.
At the annual conference of the Assn. of California Life and Health Insurance Companies at Pebble Beach in late September, for example, insurance companies reported spending less than $340 on the lawmakers who took part in panel discussions about political issues.
But they spent $410 on golf and meals for the son of Assemblyman Ed Chavez (D-La Puente); $384 on meals for the wife of Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena); $493 on spa treatments and meals for the wife of Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Angeles); and $922 on airfare, meals and spa activities for the wife of Assemblyman Ron Calderon (D-Montebello).
Many of the companies and groups that bestow gifts on legislative employees have done the same for the staff and appointees of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, banned his staff from accepting such gifts, but Schwarzenegger said this month that he sees no need for such a policy. “There’s no one selling out in my administration,” he said.
Legislators such as Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey), Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) and Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) refuse to accept gifts and ban their staff members from receiving any.
“It’s something I decided to do 12 years ago,” said Bowen. “It just felt like the right thing to do. I was concerned about the experience, the perception,” she said. “The taxpayers were paying me a salary, and if I wanted a Diet coke at the bar, I could fork over $2.50.”
Lawmakers get a minimum salary of $99,000 a year and $138 per day of session for expenses. But many of Bowen’s colleagues still take the gifts.
Chavez and his family accepted $5,600 in gifts between January and September, the most of any lawmaker and his or her family.
Chavez did not return phone calls requesting comment. Neither did Calderon, who accepted $3,200 worth of gifts for himself and his family.
However, Calderon’s communications director, Richard A. Garcia, responded with an e-mail: “All nonmonetary contributions received are consistent with necessary relationship-building between a variety of stakeholders. They are reported according to [Fair Political Practice Commission] mandates and are available for public perusal online.”
Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) and his wife accepted $4,000 in gratuities, including $800 in Pebble Beach golf fees paid by Prudential Financial and $251 worth of Kings tickets from BP.
Ackerman said such perks have no influence over how he votes, and that he meets with more interest groups that do not give him gifts than those that do.
“They know generally how I’m going to vote,” Ackerman said. “It doesn’t matter if they give me a gift or not.”
Ackerman said he has no trouble letting groups pick up the tab for dinners and lunches because they involve work. And many times, he said, groups report his attendance at a reception as a gift, when he did not actually eat or drink anything.
Few legislative staffers appeared more frequently in the gift-giving reports than Shaun Flanigan, chief of staff to Assemblyman George Plescia (R-San Diego), and James Jack, chief of staff to Sen. Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz).
The men, friends from their college days, each accepted more than $600 in gifts, including $200 in Kings tickets from BP and $122 each for a reception hosted by the California Chamber of Commerce at the Central Park Boathouse in New York during the Republican National Convention in August.
Jack said such gatherings allow staff members to develop good relationships with people outside the Capitol.
“It helps you get to know people on a more personal level, and that helps in your judgment of whether information they’re sharing with you is credible, if they’re being forthright ... or if they have other issues or motivations,” said Jack.
He added that he and his boss have always been willing to meet with any interest group, regardless of whether they have given gifts.
“Information is an important thing,” said Jack. “The increased access or increased time together provides more information, but it doesn’t automatically make you more favorably disposed.”
Times staff writers Miriam Pawel and Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.
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Give and take
Companies with an interest in state government routinely treat lawmakers and legislative employees to meals, drinks, sporting events, concerts and golf games. In an analysis of 50 companies that reported giving gifts to officials between January and the end of September, these groups spent the most:
1) California Chamber of Commerce: $129,500
2) Pacific Telesis Group and its affiliates, including SBC Communications: $119,300
3) BP America and affiliated entities: $91,800
4) Edison International: $80,000
5) Allergan Inc.: $35,500
6) Sempra Energy and affiliates: $35,000
7) ChevronTexaco Corp. and subsidiaries: $32,200
8) Associated General Contractors of California: $27,300
9) California Bankers Assn.: $25,000
10) California Building Industry Assn.: $20,300
These lawmakers accepted the most gifts, according to lobbyist activity reports:
1) Assemblyman Ed Chavez (D-La Puente) and family: $5,600.
2) Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) and wife: $4,000.
3) Assemblyman Russ Bogh (R-Cherry Valley) and family: $3,900.
4) Assemblyman Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and family: $3,200.
5) Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta) and family: $3,100.
6) Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R-Lancaster) and husband, Sen.-elect George Runner: $3,000.
7) Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and family: $2,500.
8) Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher (R-Brea) and husband: $2,400.
9) Assemblyman Bob Pacheco (R-Walnut) and wife: $2,100.
10) Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and son: $1,800.
Source: Secretary of State