SACRAMENTO -- As leader of the California Assembly, Speaker Fabian Nunez has traveled the world in luxury, paying with campaign funds for visits to some of the finest hotels and restaurants and for purchases at high-end retailers such as Louis Vuitton in Paris.
It is not clear how these activities have related to legislative business, as state law requires, because the Los Angeles Democrat refuses to provide details on tens of thousands of dollars in such expenditures.
The spending, listed in mandatory filings with the state, includes $47,412 on United, Lufthansa and Air France airlines this year; $8,745 at the exclusive Hotel Arts in Barcelona, Spain; $5,149 for a “meeting” at Cave L’Avant Garde, a wine seller in the Bordeaux region of France; a total of $2,562 for two “office expenses” at Vuitton, two years apart; and $1,795 for a “meeting” at Le Grand Colbert, a venerable Parisian restaurant.
Nunez also spent $2,934 at Colosseum Travel in Rome, and paid $505 to the European airline Spanair.
Other expenses are closer to home: a $1,715 meeting at Asia de Cuba restaurant in West Hollywood; a $317 purchase at upscale Pavilion Salon Shoes in Sacramento; a $2,428 meeting at 58 Degrees and Holding, a Sacramento wine bar and bistro; and $800 spent at Dollar Rent a Car in Kihei, Hawaii.
Asked in an interview about his foreign travel in general, Nunez said: “For me, it’s a question of: Is my perspective on issues broad enough? Do I have enough context when I make decisions? This is a big state to run. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.
“These trips,” he said, “at least the ones I’ve taken -- I feel very confident and comfortable that they’re not only justified but necessary for the decisions I need to make on a daily basis.”
Given a list of 99 entries culled from his campaign finance filings, however, Nunez’s staff refused to show how the expenditures were related to California government or politics. Spokeswoman Beth Willon would say only that the expenditures were “properly disclosed and described as required by law.”
California law requires all campaign fund expenditures to be at least “reasonably” related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose. Expenditures that confer a substantial personal benefit must be “directly” related to such purposes.
Some of Nunez’s travel in his more than three years as speaker has involved studying high-speed rail and preschool programs in France, studying renewable energy in Germany and Denmark, and visiting South America with other lawmakers and lobbyists to study global warming solutions.
Some activity, however, including the 2006 Barcelona visit and a $3,199 stay at Hotel Parco in Rome this year, does not appear tied to any policy-related trips announced by Nunez’s office.
In the interview, Nunez said he wouldn’t need to use his $5.3-million “Friends of Fabian Nunez” campaign account to offset travel costs if he were independently wealthy. The speaker’s job pays $130,062 a year plus a tax-free $170 for expenses each day the Assembly is in session.
“There’s not too big a difference,” he said, “between how I live and how most middle-class people live.”
Politicians are required to periodically disclose to the secretary of state’s office contributions to and expenditures from their campaign accounts. Expenses are reported under 27 categories, such as “campaign consultants,” “fundraising events” and “candidate travel, lodging and meals.” The reporting forms also allow entries to be described in greater detail.
Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica called on Nunez to explain his spending.
“How much political, legislative and governmental work does Fabian Nunez have to do in Barcelona?” Heller said. “If they’re legitimate [expenditures], you’ve got to explain it.”
A popular politician from a heavily Democratic district, Nunez ran unopposed in his last election but, as speaker, is responsible for helping fund and manage other Democratic Assembly campaigns.
He received a total of $1.9 million in 2005 and 2006 from unions, corporations and others with a perennial stake in legislative business. They include $17,300 from AT&T; and Verizon, phone companies that pushed Nunez legislation allowing them to compete against cable television companies, and $2,500 from a group of pharmaceutical companies affected by a Nunez bill to create a prescription drug discount program.
The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California donated $5,000 in February 2006, one day before a bill it sponsored was introduced in the Assembly.
The state Democratic Party, which unlike officeholders can raise unlimited sums, transferred $4 million to Nunez’s campaign account last November.
Nunez occasionally looks beyond his campaign account to pay for travel. In 2006, he reported accepting $12,500 in airfare, meals and lodging from the tax-exempt California Foundation on the Environment and Economy, whose donors include utilities and oil companies with business before the Legislature.
The group helped pay for Nunez and his wife, a nurse and consultant, to travel in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, where they and other lawmakers, lobbyists and the governor’s chief of staff studied technologies to reduce global warming.
Similarly, the tax-exempt William C. Velasquez Institute, a policy think tank focused on Latino issues, paid $6,169 toward Nunez’s 2005 trip to France and Sweden to study universal preschool. The institute also helped finance Nunez’s trip to France in April to study high-speed rail, according to institute President Antonio Gonzalez.
Nunez, a former union organizer, travels and dines much more comfortably with campaign funds than he could on the taxpayers’ dime. The state limits employees to $6 for breakfast, $10 for lunch and $18 for dinner when they are traveling on business in California. Hotel reimbursement ranges from $84 to $140 per night plus tax, depending upon location.
Luxurious living is incompatible with Nunez’s image as a champion of working people, Heller said: “Here’s a guy who gives a lot of lip service to speaking for the little guy, but he’s living like a Goliath.”
And “when his campaigns are funding it, you have to wonder: Who does he owe for this lifestyle?” Heller said. “That’s the problem.”
The campaign filings of Nunez’s legislative counterpart, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), show no overseas travel over the last three years and few “meetings” costing more than a few hundred dollars.
Much of the spending from the “Taxpayers for Perata” fund are described as gifts for colleagues or constituents, including a $490 “gift for staff member” at the Claremont Resort and Spa in Berkeley.
Perata also reports spending $3,249 at an Apple store for “holiday gifts for colleagues,” $799 at Montclair Village Wine shop for an office “election party” and $2,665 for a staff party at À Côté Restaurant in Oakland.
For decades in California, lawmakers were permitted to use campaign funds for personal benefit, said Robert Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and former general counsel for the Fair Political Practices Commission.
They could, for example, buy a car with political donations and pocket any remaining contributions when they left office. The Legislature, under pressure from the Fair Political Practices Commission, passed laws in 1982 barring those practices and further restricting the use of campaign funds, Stern said.
The commission is responsible for enforcing those laws and is assisted by the Franchise Tax Board, which audits 30 randomly chosen lawmakers every two years. Nunez is among those being audited this year, and a report is due by February.
The commission has taken action against fewer than a dozen politicians for misuse of campaign funds. Among them is Charles Calderon, a Montebello Democrat who served in the Assembly in the 1980s, the Senate in the 1990s and is now in his second Assembly stint.
Calderon has been fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission a total of $33,000 for numerous violations, including using campaign funds to pay for a Lake Tahoe family vacation, limousine rental, clothes for his wife, modeling photos, a costumed entertainer and a tennis outfit.