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Officials Get Free Trip to Hawaii

Times Staff Writers

A mortgage company accused by hundreds of customers of fraudulent sales tactics financed a weekend at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu for the leader of the state Assembly and four other Democratic lawmakers.

Officials of the lending company, Ameriquest, last weekend joined others from telecommunications giant SBC, nursing home operators and a liquor merchant at a Hawaiian fundraiser for the state Democratic Party, according to the office of Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles).

Nunez “said we’ve got an opportunity to spend some time with folks from these different industries and have some fun, and so I said, ‘Sure,’ ” said Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara).

Democratic Assembly members Hector De La Torre of South Gate, Lloyd Levine of Van Nuys and Cindy Montanez of San Fernando took the trip with Nunez and Nava.

Ameriquest officials declined to comment Tuesday, other than to say that it and several other companies “participated in supporting the California Democratic Party” last weekend in Honolulu.

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Besides Ameriquest and SBC, other participants were the California Assn. of Health Facilities, whose members operate nursing homes, and British alcohol marketer Diageo.

Nunez referred questions about the trip to his staff.

As host, Ameriquest, the nation’s largest high-risk mortgage lender, picked up the tab for the airfare, hotel, the National Football League all-star game tickets and at least one dinner for the lawmakers. The company is among the largest political donors in California, having spent $3.8 million in the 2004 election on candidates for state office and ballot measures.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the largest benefactor of Ameriquest’s donations during that period, receiving $1.2 million through his gubernatorial campaign and a committee that funds ballot measures that he promotes.

The company gave $1 million to the California Republican Party and $225,000 to the California Democratic Party in the 2003-04 election cycle.

Nunez spokesman Vince Duffy said the corporate sponsors were expected to give between $80,000 and $90,000. It wasn’t clear Tuesday whether those sums included Ameriquest’s expenditures.

The Hawaiian Village Hilton, which has the largest swimming pool on the island of Oahu and views of Diamond Head, costs $400-$500 per weekend night; tickets to the Pro Bowl were $30 to $150.

A spokesman for Montanez called the fundraiser no different from those occurring daily in bars and restaurants around the Capitol -- except that it unfolded in a more relaxed setting.

“It was a social event for them to get to know one another a little better,” said Rocky Rushing, chief of staff for Montanez.

California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said donations generated by the weekend in Honolulu would be used to help finance Democratic candidates’ Assembly campaigns in 2006.

“People always look for creative ideas for fundraisers so they’re not just sit-down klatches of people talking to one another,” Torres said.

Corporations must disclose gifts to elected officials quarterly. Elected officials must report the receipt of gifts annually in March.

Ameriquest, based in Orange, has been the target of lawsuits filed by consumers in California and at least 20 other states alleging a pattern of fraud, falsification of documents, bait-and-switch sales tactics and other violations.

Ameriquest officials have said they do not comment on pending litigation. But they have pointed out that customers sign documents saying they understood the terms of their loans.

Democratic lawmakers have said they intend to introduce legislation this year to curb abusive lending practices.

Government relations employees with Diageo and the California Assn. of Health Facilities did not return calls seeking comment.

De La Torre declined to discuss the fundraiser other than to say, “The speaker invited me,” and it was an opportunity for socializing.

Rushing, Montanez’s chief of staff, said no policy was discussed in Hawaii. Montanez attended as part of Nunez’s leadership team -- she heads the Assembly Rules Committee -- and not to hobnob, said Rushing.

“I don’t know that it’s buying access to any greater degree than the system allows now.”


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