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Nunez defends lavish tab for travel

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez offered some explanation Friday for a few campaign fund expenditures in Europe, but refused to elaborate on how tens of thousands of dollars of other purchases were related to governmental or political business.

“Every expenditure I made has been totally legitimate,” the Los Angeles Democrat said at a Capitol news conference.

The Times reported last week that since becoming Assembly leader in 2004, Nunez has used campaign funds to travel extensively, visiting exclusive hotels and restaurants in Europe and South America.

He also has spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money on “meetings” and “office expenses” at businesses such as Louis Vuitton in Paris, a wine bar in Sacramento and clothier Robert Talbott in Carmel.

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State law allows politicians to spend political donations on travel, meetings and gifts so long as the purchases are related to a political, governmental or legislative purpose.

Until Friday, Nunez had refused to explain the governmental business involved with 99 expenditures culled by The Times from his required filings with the state. As a result, he faced heavy criticism from the media, the public and some members of unions that donate to him.

At the news conference, Nunez spoke about $8,745 spent from his campaign account last year at Hotel Arts in Barcelona, Spain. He said the president of the parliament of the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia invited him, and suggested that he stay at the exclusive hotel because it was four blocks from a governmental palace.

The expenditure also includes the cost of a minivan rental and the hiring of a driver and translator, Nunez said.

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“Just to have a driver and translator was like 1,100 Euros or something,” he said. “It’s expensive. Trade missions are not cheap.”

Nunez also explained $2,562 in expenses at Louis Vuitton in Paris as gifts for dignitaries and staff who helped arrange his visits to France to study high-speed rail and universal preschool.

A $5,149 expense listed in the filings as a “meeting” at Cave L’Avant Garde, a wine seller in the Bordeaux region of France, involved buying lunch for a 26-member delegation on the high-speed rail trip, he said.

“I learned French wine is a lot more expensive than California wine,” Nunez said.

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After he spoke to reporters, the speaker’s staff released four pages of information about his 2006 trips to Barcelona and France, including a list of officials who attended meetings. As a result of the Barcelona meetings, according to Nunez’s office, a Catalan trade official later visited Sacramento to meet with agricultural officials “to discuss California’s participation” in Europe’s second-largest food and beverage expo.

Nunez’s activities in France, according to his staff, included meetings with train manufacturers and operators, a round table on global warming with French wine industry representatives, a television interview and “brief tour of [the] Louvre Museum.”

Expenditures that Nunez did not explain include a $1,480 “meeting” at the Llao Llao Hotel & Restaurant in Bariloche, Argentina, a resort area; an $848 “meeting” at the famous French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley; and $250 at Mike’s Bikes in Sacramento.

Spokesman Steve Maviglio later said the bike shop purchase was a gift, but he declined to elaborate.

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Nunez’s campaign account credit card transactions were listed in disclosures that all legislators must make periodically to the secretary of state’s office.

Politicians can either describe the expenditures or choose among 27 classifications such as “fundraising events,” “meetings and appearances,” “political consultants” and “office expenses.”

In the hourlong exchange with reporters, the usually affable Nunez called the criticism of his campaign spending the worst publicity of his speakership. “Maybe I put my foot in my mouth a little bit,” he said, by telling The Times last week: “There’s not too big a difference between how I live and how most middle-class people live.”

Nunez occasionally bristled with anger, calling criticism of his spending “gotcha politics.”

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“I’m not going to engage in the type of gotcha politics directed at me, when I’m being singled out, when in reality I’ve been nothing but straightforward, honest and direct with everybody,” he said.

“Expenses that have been made are legal expenses, fully, to the letter of the law. I have nothing to hide from anybody, but I refuse to give you the fullest explanation on each and every item for the last . . . 3 1/2 years,” Nunez said.

He said the “distraction” of questions about his campaign expenditures has made him hesitant to accept invitations to visit Mexico and Asia this year.

“I might just not do them at all,” Nunez said huffily.

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Some of his reported expenses could appear “pretty funny,” the speaker acknowledged. He noted that he was getting “beat up” for buying $1,005 worth of cookies, and told reporters that the treats were for his staff when Assembly sessions dragged late into the evening. “Some of you may have actually been the benefactor of some of those snickerdoodle cookies if you walked into my office,” he said.

Nunez refused to detail other expenditures, including a $317 purchase at an upscale Sacramento shoe store, saying, “I don’t know what that particular expense was.”

The speaker, who represents downtown Los Angeles, is one of 30 legislators randomly chosen this year by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for an audit of his campaign account. The audit is due by February.

Nunez contrasted himself with previous speakers who have traveled to Spain using taxpayer money, and with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who bills much of his overseas travel to a nonprofit group whose donors enjoy tax deductions and secrecy.

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Government and nonprofit watchdogs have derided Schwarzenegger’s California State Protocol Foundation as a potential conflict of interest and an abuse of the tax code.

“In my case, you have more reporting from me. . . than you have from others who only travel on the nonprofit organizational shield,” Nunez said.

And although he refused to detail how some of his expenditures related to governmental or political business, Nunez said he was willing to consider changing the law to require better reporting of campaign account transactions. “I’m willing to look at it,” he said, “because I want to focus on the policy, not on anybody questioning my integrity.”

Separate from any questions about Nunez’s purchases, the Fair Political Practices Commission has been considering an overhaul of its filing forms to bring more clarity to how politicians report raising and spending money.

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“We have been looking at what can be done within our statutory authority,” said commission spokesman Roman Porter, “to provide the public and press with greater disclosure and greater specificity with respect to expenditures and how they may relate to a political, legislative or government purpose, as required by law.”

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com


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