Political pay to spouses targeted

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- A California congressman who recently won House approval of a bill that would prevent federal legislators from placing spouses on their campaign payrolls has joined advocates for clean government in calling for the state to also prohibit the controversial practice.

More than a dozen state lawmakers, including top legislative leaders, have paid $1.12 million in campaign cash -- raised from special interests -- to spouses, sons, daughters and companies that employed them during the last seven years, records show.

The spouses’ income is on top of the state legislators’ more than $113,000 annual salary.

Defenders of the practice say it is legal in California. It is proper as long as the spouse does the work paid for, they say.


But critics say that allowing campaigns to hire the wives or husbands of lawmakers can give special interests more influence by allowing them, through political contributions, to help fatten the wallets of elected officials.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) won House approval of a bill last month that he said would end the “potentially corrupt practice” of members of Congress writing big checks from donor funds to their spouses for services.

“When it’s the spouse who gets campaign money, it goes directly into the officeholder’s pocket and that’s a grievous conflict of interest,” Schiff, a former state senator, said. His wife, Eve, is a former marketing researcher who is a stay-at-home mom and does not work for pay on his campaigns.

Although his bill has gone to the U.S. Senate for consideration, Schiff said California should follow the lead of seven other states, including Connecticut, Ohio and Texas, that also have outlawed the payments to spouses.

Schiff introduced the federal bill after Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville) came under criticism for paying his wife a commission for campaign contributions she raised from supporters. The FBI has launched a probe of Julie Doolittle’s business, which did work for imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Schiff’s bill, which does not apply to state legislatures, bans not only direct payments by congressional campaign committees to spouses for services including consulting and fundraising, but also “indirect compensation,” such as payments to companies that employ spouses.


In Sacramento, the practice of paying relatives with campaign funds has been used by legislators including state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine).

Ackerman defended his arrangement with his wife, Linda, who has received $68,500 from five of his campaign committees since 2000, including $10,500 this year. Some of it is for reimbursement of expenses, such as purchasing office supplies, but most is for fundraising and consulting services.

The money comes from political committees that accepted contributions from businesses wanting Ackerman’s vote, including insurance industry groups, pharmaceutical companies, unions, and casino operators California Commerce Club and Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

“I am aware there are potential abuses, but you have to weigh the real cost and benefits,” he said. “I don’t see it as a conflict.”

Ackerman said he was teased by colleagues for “being too cheap,” adding that his wife was being paid below the market rate.

Looking at his own situation, Ackerman sees no need for something like the Schiff bill in California.


“Generally, I don’t like to legislate unless there is a problem,” he said. “I haven’t seen the need for it at this level.”

Perata tapped his campaign committees from 2000 through 2004 to pay $357,000 to Exit Strategies, a firm operated by his son, Nick, for campaign consulting.

FBI agents raided the son’s home in December 2004 as part of an investigation seeking information on Exit Strategies and other firms. The probe has not led to any charges.

The investigation also was looking at a firm involving Perata’s daughter that received $17,000 for fundraising and other services from 2000 through January 2005.

Perata declined through a spokeswoman to discuss whether a bill like Schiff’s was needed in California. “We don’t comment on hypothetical legislation,” Alicia Trost said.

She deferred comment on the propriety of the practice to campaign officials for Perata, who did not return calls for comment.


In some cases, it is not easy to discern payments to spouses from the disclosure statements filed by legislators.

State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) has paid $178,000 to his wife, Elsa, mostly through her firm, Eventfully Yours. The majority of money is for fundraising events in the last seven years.

The arrangement resulted in an ethics complaint against Dean Florez by the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group, which said the payments were excessive and had the effect of enriching the senator.

The Fair Political Practices Commission took no action as a result of the complaint. Florez did not return calls for comment.

“It’s only a problem if the family member doesn’t do the work and [if] it’s just a way to divert money,” said Bill Leonard, a former legislator and current member of the state Board of Equalization, who used his political committee, Friends of Bill Leonard, to pay $44,000 in 2005-06 to Pacific Events for consulting. The firm is listed as an event planning, fundraising and travel company that was the source of $10,000 to $100,000 in income for his wife last year.

Leonard said his wife did the fundraising she was paid for.

In still other cases, spouses appear to be benefiting indirectly, although the politicians dispute that there is a link.


Assemblyman Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) has had his campaigns pay $30,000 during the last three years to Pacific Palms Resort and $29,000 to Montage Press.

Mei Mei Ho and Associates, his wife’s business consulting firm, reported last year making $10,000 to $100,000, with her two identified clients being Pacific Palms Resort and Montage Press.

Huff denied that his wife was being compensated for fundraising work she had done on his campaign over the years. “She is a consultant for Pacific, not for my campaign,” he said.

He probably would not support California adopting the Schiff bill for state legislators, although he added, “It seems like there clearly is some abuse.”

Other state officials giving campaign funds to relatives include:

* Assemblyman Bill Maze (R-Visalia) had his campaign committees pay $30,000 to his wife, Becky, and her consulting fundraising business, RBM Services, since the 2004 election.

* State Sen. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) has paid $31,000 to her husband, Guy Conner, the owner of a political consulting firm, over the last seven years. Conner said all of the payments were to reimburse him for expenses, such as postage, and that all of his services, including work as a treasurer, are provided to her for free as a volunteer.


* Assemblywoman Audra Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks) had her campaign committee pay $15,000 in 2005 to her husband’s public relations firm for campaign consulting. Her husband, former Assemblyman Tony Strickland, had his campaign committee pay at least $48,000 to a campaign consulting firm run by his wife before her election.

* Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) had various campaign committees pay $98,000 in the last two years to Coronado Communications. His wife, Dianne Harman, is a consultant who lists Coronado Communications as her big client, bringing her between $10,000 and $100,000 last year in income. Jennifer Jacobs, a partner in Coronado Communications, said Dianne Harman was paid directly by her husband’s campaign for some work as campaign treasurer, but Dianne Harman’s work for the firm was for other political candidates, not her husband.

* Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) has had his campaign committees pay $95,000 to his wife’s campaign firm over the last seven years, although she co-founded the firm and was a political consultant before she married the senator.

Simitian said disclosure of campaign payments to spouses was the key to preventing abuse.

Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, thinks disclosure does not go far enough.

“It’s so open to abuse. It’s a way to enhance the legislator’s income. It’s a backdoor way of getting paid by the campaign,” Stern said. “California legislators get paid very well. If the wife wants to work on the campaign, great -- volunteer.”