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Nunez sells off French wine

Times Staff Writer

The state Democratic Party bought $3,238 worth of French wine from Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez’s political fund after extensive media criticism of the Los Angeles Democrat’s lavish spending.

Party officials said the wine was for use at a Democratic fundraiser. But nearly half of the 36 bottles, valued at about $90 each, are in a Sacramento wine locker kept by Nunez’s sometime roommate in Los Angeles who is a fundraiser for both the speaker and the state party.

The rest of the wine was consumed at other functions, a party spokesman said, such as a fundraiser this month with Nunez as the main attraction.

Friends of Fabian Nunez, the speaker’s political committee, bought the wine from a shop in the French region of Bordeaux because the merchant did not accept the party’s American Express card, party spokesman Roger Salazar said. But it did take Nunez’s Visa.

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The wine -- Nunez’s second expenditure at the wine shop this year -- was not consumed at the fundraiser it was intended for, Salazar said, because that event featured a California winemaker.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said the timing of the reimbursement “seems more than coincidental.”

But whether the wine was originally intended for Nunez or for the Democratic Party, he said, “the whole thing just speaks of luxury and using campaign funds for expensive items and not . . . for campaign advertising, the traditional expenses.”

Nunez spokesman Steve Maviglio said the reimbursement was unrelated to the criticism of the speaker after the earlier purchase had been publicized.

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The timing of the payment was coincidental, said Maviglio, adding “that’s the time it took to process.”

The wine was bought in July for an Aug. 20 Democratic Party fundraiser that featured Nunez, Salazar said. Invitations billed the event as an “annual winemaker’s dinner.”

People who attended the fundraiser told The Times they did not recall drinking French wine there, however. After being informed of their statements, Salazar said the French wine was not used at the dinner, because a small Napa Valley winemaker was highlighted at the event and his products were served.

“The [French] wine was purchased for that event,” Salazar said, but party officials ultimately decided that it would be “rude” to serve it.

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The wine that remains will be used for Democratic Party functions, he said. The locker where it is stored is rented by Daniel Weitzman, the fundraiser with whom Nunez shares the rent on a condominium in his Los Angeles Assembly district.

On Oct. 5, The Times reported that Nunez, since becoming leader of the Assembly in 2004, has spent tens of thousands of campaign dollars on overseas travel, meals and goods at high-end retailers.

State law requires the use of campaign funds to be at least “reasonably” connected to a legislative, governmental or political purpose and “directly” related if the official using the funds gets a substantial personal benefit.

Nunez initially refused to explain the expenditures, which included a $5,149 purchase at L’Avant Garde wine shop in April, when he visited France with a delegation studying high-speed rail.

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The wine the party reimbursed him for was purchased from the same shop, state records show. Salazar said the second purchase was made online.

Nunez told reporters a week after The Times report that the $5,149 expenditure was for lunch and wine for a 26-member delegation. Nunez spokesman Maviglio later clarified that only wine was purchased.

Maviglio said it was consumed at a Bordeaux chateau where Nunez and other French and American officials discussed the effect of global warming on the French wine industry.

On Oct. 18, two weeks after The Times report, the Friends of Fabian Nunez committee asked the state party for reimbursement for the July payment of $3,238 to L’Avant Garde, Salazar said.

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The party paid Nunez’s account eight days later, a transaction reported in public filings on Nov. 1. Under state law, the online purchase does not have to be publicly disclosed by Nunez until Jan. 31.

Salazar said the state Democratic Party generally buys California wines, but “every once in a while you get fancy.”

David Phillips, co-owner and president of Michael-David Winery in Lodi, Calif., took offense at Salazar’s statement.

“We think California wines are plenty fancy enough,” Phillips said.

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“If legislators are having parties, I do hope they’re using California wines. . . . We provide a huge amount of tax revenue and jobs to the economy of California.”

nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Wine trail

* April 2007: Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) spends $5,149 from his campaign account at a wine shop in the Bordeaux region of France.

* July 20: Nunez’s campaign account is used to pay $3,238 for wine from the same shop in an online purchase.

* Oct. 5: The Times reports on Nunez’s spending from the campaign account, spurring widespread media criticism of the expenditures.

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* Oct. 18: A Nunez representative asks the state Democratic Party to reimburse his fund for the $3,238 purchase.

* Oct. 26: Payment of $3,328 is made from the state Democratic Party to Nunez’s account.

Source: Times reporting


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