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Nunez’s wine fails sniff test

Memo to editor:

Water is a huge issue right now in the California Legislature. So to broaden my perspective, I propose traveling to Italy to study the ancient Roman aqueduct.

It’s even older than the state water project. Both are outdated, and I could put this all into context for our readers.

There’s a convenient hotel in Rome at the top of the Spanish Steps where I can stay for $730 a night.

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Best, Your stir-crazy Sacramento columnist.

Naw. She’d never buy into that. This isn’t the good-old Times.

Better to create a “Friends of George” committee and have it pay for the trip. “Friends” like political consultants, lobbyists and legislators. They’d be happy to give me money -- for any purpose -- in anticipation of some future favor.

Actually, I wouldn’t really reciprocate with favors, per se. I’d merely provide them access to my cluttered office so they could spin me before each column. Access, input, that’s all.

Readers might not understand. Might get outraged. But they’d never find out. And if they did, well, I’d worry about that then.

Actually, I’d be fired on the spot, and should be.

It’s all fanciful and ludicrous, except in politics. There, such tacit extortion, favor-investing and quid pro quos are common.

Elected officials realize that their bosses -- the public -- would balk at paying for lavish boondoggle trips, no matter how much lipstick they painted on the pig. So too many -- not all -- hit up high-rolling special interests.

It’s usually legal, but occasionally criminally dumb.

Like with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles).

Nunez is the latest politician to blissfully step into it without thinking.

The legendary Assembly Speaker Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh -- who Nunez once told me was his idol -- had an explanation for such behavior. He said seemingly sensible politicians would become pampered by power and perks and get lulled into the delusion that they were invisible, except for the appearances they themselves staged.

That’s the most credible explanation I know of for Nunez’s actions -- his traveling the world in luxury, paid for with “Friends of Fabian” campaign funds contributed by special interests, as detailed last week by Times reporter Nancy Vogel.

My favorite expense item was the $5,149 for a “meeting” in a wine shop in the Bordeaux region of France. The $8,745 tab at the Hotel Arts in Barcelona, Spain, also was amusing. Vogel listed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of questionable expense payments that were truly inspirational -- inspirational because they rekindled my passion for political reform.

If we had public financing of state political campaigns -- so the public bought the Sacramento politicians, rather than the special interests buying them -- then we could control the boondoggle slush funds. Public financing of political races would cost a fraction of what special interests pay out. That’s why it hasn’t happened: The political industry is fearfully opposed.

Campaign consultants get rich off the current system. Special interests have a cozy edge in swaying lawmakers and the governor. Politicians rake in piles of pleasure money.

So forget public financing for a while in Sacramento.

But even with the current corrupting system, it’s indefensible that private political funds are used for anything except politics. They certainly shouldn’t be spent on “office expenses” at upscale clothier Robert Talbott or a “meeting” at the venerable Parisian restaurant Le Grand Colbert, as Nunez did.

Lawmakers spend the money as if they’re cashing in gift certificates, which essentially they are. Legally, there’s a $390 annual limit on a special interest’s gifts to an individual legislator. But there’s a $3,600 limit on campaign contributions for each election. That’s a big loophole for laundering gift money. Dump dollars into a lawmaker’s political account and let him withdraw it for Bordeaux wine tasting.

California law requires all campaign fund expenditures to be “reasonably” related to some political, legislative or governmental purpose.

Nunez told Vogel that “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.”

But in Barcelona? In Rome?

Until Wednesday (see below), neither Nunez nor his staff had tried to explain how any of the eye-opening expenditures Vogel gleaned from his official campaign expenditure reports relate to California government or politics.

This gets back to a basic rule of politics and life: If you can’t explain it, don’t do it.

For my money, the law should be changed to limit political spending to politics. Let a lawmaker tap into his campaign fund to attend a party convention in San Jose -- but not a meeting in a French wine cellar.

Anything that produces a public benefit should be paid for by the public.

Same with governors’ so-called trade missions.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has financed foreign gallivanting with money secretly contributed to his travel slush fund. Because it’s a nonprofit organization -- treated legally like a charity -- it doesn’t need to publicly disclose its donors. Presumably many contributors tag along and schmooze the governor.

Schwarzenegger also has reached into campaign funds to pad the salaries of top staffers. Ostensibly it was for off-duty political work. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer is doing the same. There’s just not a good smell about policy advisors being slipped political money -- special interest money -- while on the public payroll.

Speaker Unruh’s most famous quote was: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”

One of his disciples, Speaker Nunez, has turned political money into the mother’s milk of wine tasting. It doesn’t leave a good taste.

After my deadline -- after I’d written this column -- Nunez called to explain.

He “became a hit around the world” after his global warming bill passed last year, the speaker said, and received many foreign invitations. “The dollar is pretty darn weak in Europe these days” and that runs up expenses, he added. He also buys lots of gifts for dignitaries, staffers and other legislators.

Nunez defended paying for all this with political money rather than tax dollars. “My conscience wouldn’t allow me to do that, so I use my campaign funds. That’s between me and the people who contribute.”

But what about the wine trip? The French organized it.

“I know this stuff doesn’t look good. But it’s legitimate. I did not do anything wrong.”

george.skelton@latimes.com


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