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Rules tighten pols’ purse strings

Times Staff Writers

The state ethics watchdog Thursday made it tougher for politicians to use campaign funds to enhance their lifestyles.

New rules imposed by the Fair Political Practices Commission will force politicians to publicly explain how meals, gifts and out-of-state travel paid for with campaign money are connected to political or governmental business.

The panel’s unanimous vote comes four months after The Times revealed that Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) spent tens of thousands of dollars from special interests and other political donors on overseas travel, meals, wine and high-end retail goods with no obvious connection to his official duties. The new regulations will take effect for campaign expenditures after July 1.

The commission reported receiving 2,043 letters and 74 phone calls from the public supporting adoption of the new rules -- an unprecedented response to its usually obscure actions. Most were form letters sent by customers of CREDO Mobile, a phone company that urges customers each month to weigh in on state and national issues.

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The letters asked the commission to “stop elected officials’ misuse of campaign funds.”

“Consumers and citizens care about this stuff,” said CREDO President Michael Kieschnick, “but they’re not usually asked about it in a way they can respond.”

State law requires politicians to spend the money they get from corporations, unions, private citizens and other donors in ways “reasonably” related to political or governmental purposes. But they have not had to prove the connection in the periodic spending reports they must make public. Campaign expenditures have simply been grouped under broad categories such as “office expenses,” “meetings and appearances” and “candidate travel.”

Commission Chairman Ross Johnson, a former Republican legislator from Orange County, said the law was “meaningless” unless more information was required.

The new regulations will require elected officials to name people for whom they buy gifts with campaign funds and describe the nature of gifts. They must also provide the dates and destinations of out-of-state travel, and disclose whether campaign funds were used to pay for the travel costs of family members or staff.

The rules also require politicians to disclose the number of people at a meal and whether family or staff were among the diners. For all gift, travel and meal expenditures, politicians must “briefly describe the political, legislative or governmental purpose of the expenditure.”

Nunez spokesman Steve Maviglio said of the new regulations, “Hopefully this long overdue action to provide more transparency and clarity will give Californians more confidence in their elected leaders.”

In adopting the regulations, the five-member commission rebuffed campaign lawyers, who had called the new rules “overly burdensome.”

In a letter to the commission, the president of the California Political Treasurers Assn. noted that few politicians have been found guilty in the last 15 years of using campaign committees for personal benefit.

“This suggests to us the need for a new regulation may be overstated,” wrote David L. Gould.

Consumer groups urged the commission to go further. They suggested politicians should have to explain the official connection to travel within California, not just outside the state. And they urged the panel to require that travel itineraries be attached and activities such as golf explained.

Carmen Balber of the nonprofit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights told commissioners Thursday: “This is the $2,100 ‘meeting’ at Spago; this is the $389 ‘meeting’ at Pebble Beach; this is the money at the spas and the wineries, et cetera, et cetera. I think these are the types of expenditures that the average Californian is going to raise their eyebrows at, just as much as they’re going to raise their eyebrows at the junket to Japan.”

Panel members said they would consider further disclosure requirements at their May meeting.

The new regulations will apply to all state and local elected officials, and candidates who raise or spend more than $1,000 a year.

In other action, the commission reported that voter-imposed limits on contributions to state politicians have not reduced the amount of special-interest money devoted to their causes.

Data compiled by commission staff show that unions, Indian tribes and other interests with a stake in state government have funneled ever-greater amounts of money into politics by running their own campaigns for and against candidates, without giving directly to the politicians.

“It’s a situation that many believe is out of control and is thwarting the will of the people,” Johnson said.

His staff’s study found that up to two-thirds of the money put into some races, including the 2006 contest for state controller, was spent outside the limits set by Proposition 34, the 2000 initiative that restricted direct donations to candidates.

From 2000 to 2006, the amount of money spent by groups and individuals on independent campaigns for and against legislative candidates has increased from $376,000 to $23.5 million, according to the commission analysis.

Major funders of such efforts include Indian tribes with gambling operations, Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos and his daughter Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, the California Teachers Assn., the California prison guards union and several other public employee unions.

The commission began accepting public input on the matter Thursday.

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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