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Nunez middle class? Boy, that’s rich

If he crashes and burns in politics, California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez could have a great future as a travel agent.

As my colleague Nancy Vogel laid out in a jaw-dropping exposé Friday, L.A.'s man of the people has not missed a trick while traveling extensively and luxuriously about the world, throwing campaign funds around like confetti.

Italy. France. Spain.

Our very own rascal in paradise has been there, and he’s tasted the world’s finest offerings.

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A $1,795 meal in Paris. An $8,745 hotel bill in Barcelona. A $5,149 meeting at a Bordeaux wine shop.

“There’s not too big a difference,” Nunez told Vogel, “between how I live and how most middle-class people live.”

Hands down, it’s the quote of the year.

I’m not sure what middle-class people Nunez is talking about, but I’m worried that he’s spending entirely too much time with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Could the speaker be talking about Brentwood’s middle-class?

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We’re talking lifestyles of the rich and famous here, not Applebee’s and Ramada. Nunez may even be trying to compete with Schwarzenegger, who’s been using an obscure nonprofit group to finance lavish overseas travel involving private jets and exclusive hotels, as detailed recently by my colleague Paul Pringle.

And there’s one more thing these two high rollers have in common:

They’re both bending rules of ethics, if not snapping them in half.

Schwarzenegger’s little nonprofit is well-fed with donations from people who don’t have to disclose their identity. So not only is it unclear who’s paying for the governor’s travels, but the tax write-off for donors, and the use of a charitable organization to fund luxury travel, are arguably a corruption of the tax code.

In the case of Nunez, it’s legal to use campaign funds for travel, but only if it’s related to the business of government and politics.

I suppose it’s possible that a Bordeaux wine shop hosted a symposium on California infrastructure bonds, but when I called Nunez’s office for more information I got a stock answer from a spokeswoman:

“The expenditures were properly disclosed and described as required by law.”

It’s the democracy we’ve all been waiting for in Sacramento. Gulfstreams, Louis Vuitton office supplies and nose-thumbing responses to inquiring constituents.

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Given Nunez’s refusal to explain the specific purpose of his travels, Carmen Balber of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights is biting her nails, hoping Nuez wasn’t sampling fine wine with players who have pumped $5.3 million into the “Friends of Fabian Nunez” campaign kitty.

“The first question that comes to mind is whether the health insurance industry was sponsoring the speaker’s lavish trips, as he’s now debating the future of the health market in California,” Balber said.

She notes that Nunez’s travel fund has received $136,000 from health insurers and their lobbyists. And Nunez is working with Schwarzenegger ($719,000 and counting from health insurers and their lobbies) on a health insurance reform bill that would require every Californian to buy coverage, but wouldn’t require insurers to cap the cost.

Certainly the insurers would love to raise a fine bottle of red to the passage of such a bill, and Nunez has been known to pop the cork on crushed grapes that run as high as $224 a bottle.

But do we really want Nuez managing billions of our tax dollars if this is his idea of money management? Easy come, easy go, I suppose, when you’ve got campaign funds to burn, on top of $170-a-day in spending money along with a six-figure salary.

I checked one five-week stretch of Nunez’s expenses in 2006 and found that he’d dined at the likes of the Water Grill ($602.29), Pacific Dining Car ($1,003.37), and Asia de Cuba ($538.10), and, in Sacramento, Biba restaurant ($1,026.58).

Along with several other meal/meetings in that five-week stretch, his dining tab came to $7,764.94.

Can someone please give him directions to a Pizza Hut?

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As you might have imagined, the news of Nunez’s champagne tastes had some donors feeling duped.

“We would much prefer that he be educating himself about what’s the best healthcare system in the world rather than the best wine or the best shoes or any number of expenditures,” said Donna Gerber, director of government relations for the California Nurses Assn., which donated $4,000 to Friends of Fabian.

Barry Broad, who represents the Teamsters ($15,900 in donations to Nunez) and other labor groups, says it’s hard to ask members to keep digging into their pockets for campaign donations when the working stiffs open their paper and see that Nunez is frolicking around the world like he’s playing with Monopoly money.

It’s the kind of story that “further undermines the public’s view of the political process,” Broad said. But “I don’t know how much lower it could go.”

Not much, especially when the records reveal that Nunez rang up unspecified office expenses at Nordstrom for $476.28.

A set of wine glasses, perhaps?

As for the office expenses from Louis Vuitton, they ran $787.50 on one occasion and $1,775.36 on another, which is a lot of staples.

Based on a call to Louis Vuitton and a search of the website, I’m wondering if Nunez bought the $650 Taiga binder as a travel calendar and, to enter his next dreamy destination, the Cargo pen with alligator skin, Rhodium finish and an 18-carat gold nib for $1,620.

If the speaker reveals nothing else, can he at least fill the rest of the middle class in on what a gold nib is?

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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