Ethics panel investigates state Sen. Mimi Walters

SACRAMENTO — The state’s ethics agency is investigating whether state Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel) violated conflict-of-interest laws when her office placed phone calls to California prison officials about the status of a financial claim her husband’s company had filed.

The inquiry was disclosed in a written notice to Walters’ attorney by Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the state Fair Political Practices Commission. He wrote that his office “will be pursuing an investigation regarding whether or not Sen. Walters violated the Political Reform Act’s conflict-of-interest prohibitions.”

The Times reported last month that the state had paid $74,400 to a company co-owned by Walters’ husband after her office made repeated calls to at least four officials to check on the claim.

David Walters’ company provides pharmacists to the California corrections system. The firm filed a claim with the state last year, contending that it had been underpaid for its services.

Walters, chairwoman of the Senate Ethics Committee, has denied any wrongdoing. She previously said through a spokesman that her office had provided her husband’s company with the same constituent help it would give to any firm having problems with the state bureaucracy.

On Thursday, Walters’ attorney said neither the lawmaker nor her staff had tried to influence the outcome of the claim.

Attorney Charles H. Bell Jr. said the law does not prohibit a public official from inquiring about the status of a state agency matter or the timetable for getting the matter before the state claims board.

“The FPPC is free to investigate the matter, and the senator and her staff will cooperate fully with that investigation, because the facts and the law are on our side,” Bell said in an email.

The prison department’s health services division raised concerns with the Senate Rules Committee about the almost daily calls from Walters’ office.

But Senate Secretary Greg Schmidt said that no action was warranted by the Senate. “The fact that the senator had a connection to this company should not preclude a reasonable constituent service on its behalf,” Schmidt said.