California lawmakers were showered with more than $810,000 in gifts last year, many from powerful interest groups lobbying the state who handed out concert and professional sports tickets, spa treatments, gourmet dinners and trips to a dozen countries, new state reports show.
The annual economic disclosure reports shed light on how state legislators can augment their annual $110,459 salaries with gifts that allow them to travel the world and eat at expensive restaurants, often in the company of corporate executives seeking to influence their decisions in the Legislature.
The legislators reported accepting travel expenses for trips to China, Poland, South Korea, Japan, Chile, India, Spain, Germany, Israel, Mexico, El Salvador and the Netherlands. Closer to home, they also flew to New Orleans; Las Vegas; Aspen, Colo.; New York; and Maui. Many of the trips were billed as study or trade missions, while others involved speeches and panel discussions given by the lawmaker who reported the gift.
“The truth is the vast majority of gifts and trips are given because the gift givers want something in return,” said Rey Lopez-Calderon, executive director of California Common Cause, a government watchdog organization. “It’s not just a question of the gift giver wanting something in return, but that the public could infer that even if it’s not true. There is potential for the public’s faith in government to be undermined.”
While some gifts are made through nonprofit organizations, others are paid for directly by interest groups.
Former Assemblyman Dante Acosta (R-Santa Clarita) reported accepting a luxury box seat worth $615 to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Boston Red Sox in the World Series from a group called Communities for California Cardrooms, whose board of directors is made up of casino operators. Acosta lost his bid for reelection in November.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) received more than $1,800 in tickets to sporting events, including $460 for a pair of tickets to Game 5 of the World Series. The tickets were provided by Michael Lizarraga, president of the East Los Angeles Community Union.
Rendon also received $305 worth of tickets and food from the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club to attend a day of horse racing.
Assemblyman Steven Choi (R-Irvine) attended a concert by Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. The gift was provided by the Pechanga Resort and Casino that included lodging and meals, with the whole package reported to have a value of $400.
Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) accepted a $238 ticket from AT&T to a Katy Perry concert.
And Assemblyman Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) reported gifts including tickets worth $882 to Disney on Ice paid for by the California Building Industry Assn. and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
Other lawmakers were treated to a weekend at the golf resort in Pebble Beach, Calif., on the dime of the Assn. of California Life and Health Insurance Companies, while the California Charter Schools Assn. paid expenses for 19 lawmakers it invited to attend a symposium in La Jolla. Those who accepted travel expenses of $800 or more included Assembly members Heath Flora (R-Ripon), Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) and Marie Waldron (R-Escondido).
Other gifts included bottles of wine and champagne, boxes of oranges and almonds, cowboy hats and spa treatments.
The lawmakers who received the most gifts in the two houses were state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who accepted $59,000 in travel, meals and other gifts, and Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), whose tally was $41,400.
Wiener’s trips included a $14,798 study trip for 10 days to Japan paid by the Japanese government, a $12,138 trip over 11 days to the Netherlands to examine flood management and infrastructure, and an $11,330 trip over two weeks to Chile to discuss clean energy and emergency preparedness.
Gipson was among several other lawmakers who also were part of the legislative delegation to Chile and the Netherlands.
The latter two trips were paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a nonprofit group partly financed by the oil and telecommunications industries and construction labor groups. The organization’s board of directors includes executives from PG&E, Southern California Edison, Shell Energy North America, Western States Petroleum Assn., AT&T, Comcast and Health Net Inc.
The foundation’s “forums and study travel projects put a diverse cross-section of California leaders into direct contact with their counterparts around the world,” said P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for the group. “This sharing of views and experiences leads to a broader understanding of complex issues while also promoting what makes California special.”
Wiener noted that the foreign trips he took were not paid for by taxpayers.
“My preference is to spend my non-Sacramento time in San Francisco, but at the same time, seeing and learning about other countries’ policy approaches to issues confronting California — including meeting with senior government officials and advocates — makes me a better and more informed legislator,” Wiener said.
He said he learned about energy and water issues on his travels to Chile and the Netherlands. In Japan, he gathered information on issues including housing and high-speed rail.
A trip with one of the largest groups of lawmakers attending —14 — was to an annual conference on Maui sponsored by the Independent Voter Project, a nonprofit group that receives funding from corporations and labor groups, including the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., tobacco giant Altria and the California Cable & Telecommunications Assn., all of which lobby extensively in the state Capitol.
Lawmakers received about $2,600 each for expenses to attend the annual conference at a luxury resort.
“The bipartisan nature of the conference helps promote cooperation and civility in the legislature,” the group said in a written statement Monday, adding, “It is important to engage in constructive dialogue outside the politically charged confines of Sacramento.”
Assemblyman Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley) was among the top gift getters in the lower house and accepted more than $38,000 for gifts, trips, lodging and meals. The former Assembly Republican leader traveled to the Netherlands, Israel, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Aspen and Sausalito, where he gave speeches or spoke on panels in 2018.
Joe Justin, a spokesman for Mayes, said the assemblyman was presented with a number of educational travel opportunities last year.
“What interested him in the Israel trip was meeting with some of their elected leaders, and understanding how that region of the world works,” Justin said. “I think when we’re dealing with issues of immigration conflict, seeing how other countries are dealing with that is instructive and helpful. When you look outside your own bubble, you tend to improve your awareness.”
The California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy paid a nearly $12,000 tab for Mayes’ 10-day trip the Netherlands in late March. Another group called AJC Project Interchange spent more than $6,800 in July to bring Mayes to Israel to meet with officials over eight days. Mayes also accepted $470 for golf outings and drinks from the Assn. of California Life and Health Insurance Companies during a trip to Sausalito, Calif., where his attendance cost the group nearly $2,500.
There have been legislative attempts in the past to restrict many gifts, including tickets to concerts and amusement parks. But the last bill was vetoed in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown, who said disclosure is sufficient.
Lopez-Calderon said the flood of gifts to legislators is concerning, even if the gifts and trips are legal.
“At the very least elected officials should be very careful about what they accept because of the potential of corruption, not just in quid pro quo but, also more subtle and insidious relationships,” he said.
Times staff writer Melody Gutierrez contributed to this report.