Being an elected official in California has its perks. Want proof? Consider all the free tickets to sporting events that members of the Legislature accepted last year as gifts from utilities, unions, law firms and other firms.
Among the top gifts disclosed on annual forms members of the state Assembly and Senate are required to file: Game 5 of the
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León was at the deciding game in Dodgers Stadium thanks to a $556 ticket — half of it paid for by a political consulting group and the other half by a downtown Los Angeles law firm.
Bay Area Assemblyman Rob Bonta got $460 tickets to see the Golden State Warriors beat the Houston Rockets and advance to the NBA finals thanks to tickets from the chief executive of an Oakland healthcare company.
Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) got $800 tickets to the
The state Senate approved a measure two years ago to tighten restrictions on gift-giving. The bill, written by De León after a wave of scandals in the Capitol, would have outlawed entertainment-related gifts and any gift over $200 in value. It was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who said the bill would further complicate gift rules "without commensurate benefit” to the public.
The Times tallied the free baseball, football, basketball and golf games that state lawmakers attended in 2015 — and who paid for them. The information is public via "statement of economic interest" forms lawmakers fill out every year, often referred to as Form 700s. (In total, lawmakers received nearly $900,000 worth of gifts in 2015.)
The disclosures detail legislators' personal financial interests, including gifts. The public documents are kept online as PDF documents by the state Fair Political Practices Commission in an effort to promote transparency and accountability of public officials. The information is not easily searched or sorted, and the form does not require politicians to be precise in their disclosures.
For example, four legislators who golfed at a tournament in Pebble Beach last July described the same gift four different ways: "golf," "golf at Pebble Beach," "green fees" and "non-profit fundraiser." It's only by tracing who paid for it and the travel dates that the dots connect — the event was the Governor's Cup Golf Tournament on July 10 and 11 at Pebble Beach in Monterey County.
Some lawmakers reported specifics — "4 tickets SF Giants" — while others reported simply, "sporting event tickets."
The Times asked several lawmakers' offices for more information about opaque gift descriptions. For example, the $350 "sporting event tickets" given to Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma by Waste Connections Inc. were tickets to the U.S. Open golf tournament in Chambers Bay, Wash., according to her spokesman.
In total, lawmakers accepted at least $32,000 in gifts to sporting events last year, with more than half of that sum — $16,551 — related to golfing, including green fees, travel to tournaments and golf balls.
Tickets to baseball games — mostly to see the San Francisco Giants and their minor league affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats — were the next most popular, totaling $3,690.
Only two lawmakers went to Dodger games.
|Official||Event||Cost||Source of gift|
|Sen. Anthony Cannella||Governor's Cup golf tournament (food and beverage: $898; lodging: $1,618)||$2,516||Governor's Cup Foundation|
|Assemblyman Jim Wood||Governors Cup Golf Tournament: travel costs to Pebble Beach||$2,516||Governor's Cup Foundation|
|Assemblyman Rob Bonta||Governors Cup Golf Tournament: travel costs to Pebble Beach||$2,507||Governor's Cup Foundation|
|Assemblyman Ian Calderon||Governor's Cup golf tournament: travel costs to Pebble Beach||$1,618||Governor's Cup Foundation|
|Assemblyman Mike Gipson||Toyota Grand Prix: two tickets||$800||Keesal, Young, and Logan|
|Assemblyman Adam Gray||Travel to golf fundraiser||$795||The First Tee of Silicon Valley|
|Assemblyman Bill Quirk||San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks||$460||AT&T|
|Assemblyman Miguel Santiago||$460||Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015|
|Assemblyman Rob Bonta||Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets: two tickets||$460||Eric Flowers|
|Assemblyman Rob Bonta||Golden State Warriors vs. Sacramento Kings: two tickets||$460||Golden State Warriors|
|Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla||San Francisco Giants vs. St. Louis Cardinals||$460||Pacific Gas & Electric Company|
The common $460 total is likely no accident, given that figure is the legal limit. Lawmakers can exceed the limit for gifts that cover travel costs — as long as the gifts come from a 501(c)(3) charitable organization or if the politician was traveling to deliver a speech or participating in a panel.
That is how Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres), Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) and Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) were able to accept gifts of more than $2,500 a piece in travel costs to attend the Governor's Cup.
The nonprofit that runs the tournament gave $10,714 in gifts to lawmakers, making it the largest source of gifts to sporting events in the state. Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) was among those who disclosed the free travel, but her office says she did not play golf.
Aside from offering majestic views of the Pacific during rounds of golf at Spy Glass Hill, the annual tournament hosts a roundtable discussion on "public policy, scientific and humanitarian issues," according to its website.
California's powerful prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., paid for some rounds of golf at the tournament. The union paid more than $2,000 for five legislators to golf that weekend.
Telecommunications giant AT&T was the third largest gift-giver, mostly via tickets to catch Giants games at the ballpark bearing the company's name.
AT&T also paid a combined $450 for Assemblymen Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) and Richard Gordon (D-Menlo Park) to attend the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. AT&T paid $460 so Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) could see the San Francisco 49ers battle their division rivals Seattle Seahawks at home.
That type of giving by a company that lobbies state officials concerns ethics experts such as Bob Stern, former general counsel for the Fair Political Practices Commission and co-author of the 1974 Political Reform Act, which created the FPPC in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
Stern, who supported the failed 2014 measure to tighten restrictions on gift-giving, says lawmakers should be barred from accepting gifts from groups with business that lawmakers regulate.
"AT&T and the prison guards shouldn't be giving any gifts, just like lobbyists shouldn’t be giving any gifts," he said.
Registered lobbyists are limited to gifts valued at $10 or less.
The Northern California District Council of Laborers and Pacific Gas and Electric also paid for lawmakers to go to San Francisco Giants games, a big attraction in 2015.
Democratic Bay Area Assembly members Phil Ting, David Chiu, Susan Bonilla, and Evan Low attended games at AT&T Park. So, too, did Democratic Senators Jerry Hill of San Mateo and Bob Wieckowski of Fremont.
De León and Assemblyman William Brough were the only lawmakers to receive Dodgers tickets as gifts. Brough, an Orange County Republican, got a $382 ticket from billboard company Outfront Media to see the Dodgers beat the Texas Rangers.
De León's office declined to specify details about the Dodgers game he attended or other games he listed as gifts, including two soccer matches.
On the form, De León lists receiving a $320 "soccer ticket" from Major League Soccer on Oct. 10, the same date the Mexican national team defeated the United States, 3-2, at the Rose Bowl. Calls and emails to Major League Soccer for comment were not returned.
On Oct. 10, De León tweeted a warning about traffic caused by the soccer game.
The Senate leader reported two gifts the day of the Dodger game: one from political consulting firm Shallman Communications and the other from Kaufman Legal Group, a firm that specializes in political law and counts De León as a client on its website.
Each firm was listed as giving $278 for "baseball ticket, food and beverages" on the day of the playoff game against the Mets. A Shallman spokesman said the two companies had tickets for the game and gave one to De León. Each company covered half of the cost of the $556 gift, which would otherwise have been over the legal limit for a gift had it come from a single source.
"That is how it goes," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, "There are always ways to get money to politicians and essentially treat politicians to nice events. The gift limits, they do some work, but there are loopholes."
Gifts for sporting events were not limited to the glitz of professional sports in big cities.
Roseville Assemblywoman Beth Gaines and her husband, Sen. Ted Gaines, each accepted $235 for tickets to the Folsom Pro Rodeo from the local chamber of commerce. Ted Gaines also listed two entries for the California International Marathon in Sacramento with fees paid for by the race organizers.
And it's not just the Legislature.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom accepted $275 skybox tickets to the NASCAR Auto Club 400 race in Fontana.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla took in a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park worth $264, paid for by Anheuser Busch.
The Golden State Warriors gave state Treasurer John Chiang a ticket to a game at Oracle Arena where they presented him with a Stephen Curry jersey worth $180.
Not all lawmakers are high-profile enough for such glamorous events. Five lawmakers went to viewing parties thrown by the California Cable and Telecommunications Assn. to see the Warriors in the NBA playoffs last year and to see the Giants play the Dodgers.
The forms show each lawmaker listing between $4 and $9 for his or her share of food and beverages from the association at the two watch parties.
Some of the gifts can simply be chalked up to buddies hanging out. Like when Assemblyman Richard Gordon of Menlo Park reached across the aisle to give his Republican colleague Assemblyman Brian Maienschein of San Diego a ticket to see his hometown
Others are more sentimental. After Candlestick Park was torn down, Ting was given four seats spared from wreckage worth a total of $169 from the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department.
The seats are now located in Ting's San Francisco office.