State staffers’ trip to China draws ire

Share via
Times Staff Writer

A charity controlled by corporate interests paid more than $25,000 for an entourage of state aides to accompany Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on a trip to China, where he was honored at an event closely connected to first lady Maria Shriver’s family.

The governor’s office billed the California State Protocol Foundation -- a nonprofit organization whose declared mission is to shoulder expenses that would normally fall on state taxpayers -- for airfare, hotel rooms, meals and transportation for five staffers to attend the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai in October, according to state officials and records.

Schwarzenegger, who accepted an award from the Special Olympics while in China for his work in raising the group’s worldwide profile, paid for his own travel by private jet.


The trip for the governor’s aides is the most recent funded by the Protocol Foundation, a charity affiliated with California business leaders that has spent $1.7 million for Schwarzenegger and his staff to travel luxuriously on international voyages described as trade missions.

Nonprofit watchdogs have criticized the charity for refusing to reveal the names of companies and individuals who paid for the governor’s trips and in turn receive tax breaks. Federal law does not require such charities to disclose the names of their donors.

For Schwarzenegger, the Special Olympics has been a highly personal cause for nearly three decades. The group was founded in 1968 by his mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and helps the mentally disabled take part in athletics. Maria Shriver is an unpaid board member. The governor’s brother-in-law, Timothy Shriver, has served as the Special Olympics chairman, president and chief executive.

Charities, including the Protocol Foundation, are supposed to spend the money they raise in accordance with their mission.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy in Chicago, said that while Special Olympics may be worthy of support, sending state employees to accompany Schwarzenegger at an athletic event in China doesn’t appear to benefit California taxpayers. More likely, the trip helps the donors achieve their true mission, he said: to curry favor with the governor.

But “charities do not exist to further special interests, or the interests of specific politicians,” Borochoff said.


Aaron McLear, the governor’s spokesman, said the ceremonies at the Special Olympics and a meeting Schwarzenegger had with a Chinese motor vehicle company qualified as state business. Schwarzenegger’s state lawyers, in creating a memo to accept the foundation’s gift to the state of $25,344.78 for staff expenses, classified the trip as “an official Governor’s trip to China.”

“Being an ambassador for the Special Olympics is good for California,” McLear said. “There were a number of activities that he did in his short time in China that certainly were not of personal benefit but were for the good of California.”

The four-day trip -- two days of travel and two in China -- was so important to Schwarzenegger that he left the Capitol during a special legislative session he had called on water and healthcare. He had canceled trips to India and England, saying he needed to remain in Sacramento to deal with those issues.

Judy Nadler, a senior fellow at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said one way to test whether the Special Olympics is truly related to Schwarzenegger’s job as governor is to look at other events he attends for economic development or for charities, and see whether it fits a pattern.

“If the governor did this for Special Olympics, would he also do this for United Cerebral Palsy? Would he do this for the AIDS Foundation?” asked Nadler, a former Santa Clara mayor. “Because one of the inherent principles of ethics is fairness. Do other organizations have the same opportunity?”

Schwarzenegger has been involved with Special Olympics since 1979, using his bodybuilding and movie fame to help the group. As governor, he has continued promoting the cause, attending Special Olympics events on three trips that the administration described as trade missions, which were paid for by the Protocol Foundation.


On a trip to China in November 2005, Schwarzenegger and his wife went straight from their plane to a reception for the group. In November 2006, they held a meet and greet with 30 Special Olympics athletes in Mexico City. In May of this year, he went to Special Olympics events in Toronto and Ottawa on two days of a three-day trade mission to Canada.

“Now, it happens to be . . . that my mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, started Special Olympics,” Schwarzenegger said in Toronto at the unveiling of the group’s new Canadian uniform. “And you always want to be on the good side of your mother-in-law, right?”

The Protocol Foundation is run out of the Sacramento offices of the California Chamber of Commerce, which reported spending $2 million in the first nine months of this year to lobby Schwarzenegger’s administration and state lawmakers on legislation affecting business. The Chamber, through political action committees, has contributed more than $220,000 to Schwarzenegger, and its corporate members are also huge contributors, state records show.

In October, days after the governor’s trip to Shanghai, the Chamber announced he had vetoed all 12 bills that the group had branded “job killers.”

Although the governor’s office issued a press release saying Schwarzenegger was going to China for the Special Olympics, Larry Dicke, the foundation’s treasurer and a Chamber employee, said the charity’s gift was related only to Schwarzenegger’s meeting with the automaker.

“We were not involved in the Special Olympics,” Dicke said. “The governor was there for an agreement he signed with, I think it was some kind of an automobile manufacturer. That was what we were asked to handle. There was no cost reimbursed for the Special Olympics.”


But two of the staff members the foundation paid for did not attend the car meeting, held the last day of the governor’s trip. Three of the Schwarzenegger aides had been in China for nearly a week by then, according to McLear. And Schwarzenegger did not sign anything.

The governor met with Pang Qingnian, the head of Youngman Automotive Group, a large manufacturer of trucks and buses, and Steve Schneider, the chief executive of Zap, a Santa Rosa-based electric car maker. The companies had reached a joint-venture agreement the month before to produce vehicles in China. Schwarzenegger had no role in that deal, Schneider said.

Schneider said he wants to work with the governor to create “green collar” jobs, involving environmentally friendly products and services, in California. But it was clear to him that was not the reason for Schwarzenegger’s visit.

“This trip wasn’t a state trip,” Schneider said.

Sabrina Lockhart, a Schwarzenegger press aide who went on the trip, said the governor’s staff had to be there to scout out events he might have attended and be on hand to handle the media.

“There were a ton of media there from all over the world,” Lockhart said. The other staffers were Adam Mendelsohn, Schwarzenegger’s communications director; Trip Chalk and Kevin Luiz, who help coordinate media events; and Daniel Ketchell, an assistant to Schwarzenegger who flew to China on the governor’s jet but returned on a commercial carrier. All received their state salaries during the trip.

The governor also brought his state-funded protection detail. The California Highway Patrol refused to provide any information on the costs of the officers’ travel, citing security concerns.


After arriving in Shanghai on Oct. 2, Schwarzenegger walked with U.S. athletes, including some from California, into the Special Olympics opening ceremony, made public remarks and watched the event.

The next day, the governor gave a speech at what organizers called a “global policy summit” on the well-being of people with mental disabilities. Later, he was among 12 Special Olympics honorees at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center.

On Thursday, the governor and the two auto executives had breakfast at Schwarzenegger’s hotel, near the Special Olympics site in Shanghai. They walked across the street to another hotel, where the governor looked at cars, trucks and buses. Afterward, they had a private discussion, and then Schwarzenegger flew home.