California lawmakers report accepting $518,000 in gifts, including travel and expensive meals
State lawmakers accepted $518,000 in gifts last year, including expensive meals, golf games, spa treatments, bottles of wine, tickets to pro sports events and trips to Europe, Asia and Central America, according to new financial disclosure reports.
Three years after Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have severely restricted such gifts — limiting their value to $200 per giver, and banning amusement park and sports tickets — veteran lawmakers continue to rake in large amounts of offerings, many from special interest groups seeking favors from state government.
The flood of 2,312 gifts to 114 lawmakers is troubling to former Republican state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, who tried unsuccessfully four times to pass a bill that would have prohibited gifts from interests that employ lobbyists.
“I believe these gifts are corrosive to the public trust and create an appearance of an unhealthy intimacy between legislators and moneyed interests,” said Blakeslee, founder of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
Last year’s gift total is less than the $892,000 accepted in 2015, in large part because many lawmakers — including 22 in the Assembly — were newly elected in November or returning after some time off, so they were in office for less than two months last year.
In 2015, the entire Legislature was in office the whole year.
Lawmakers were allowed to accept gifts valued at up to $460, although the limit does not apply when travel expenses are paid for the lawmaker to attend an event and give a speech or participate in a panel discussion.
Here are some of the highlights, by category.
Gifts last year allowed legislators to go on study and trade trips to Germany, Australia, Morocco, Hawaii, China, El Salvador, Mexico, Italy, England, the Philippines and the Czech Republic.
For instance, Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) had more than $22,000 in travel expenses for his trips to Australia, Germany and the Czech Republic paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.
The group is a San Francisco think tank financed by interests including PG&E, Shell, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the State Building and Construction Trades Council, Tesoro and Chevron Corp.
Wieckowski received more gifts than any other legislator, worth $27,000 total.
Seven legislators, also including Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley, went on the European trip sponsored by the foundation.
Nine lawmakers attended an annual conference in Maui sponsored by the Independent Voter Project, which receives funding from oil and tobacco firms and other interests lobbying the Legislature. The legislators’ travel expenses for the Hawaii trip averaged about $3,000 apiece.
Critics say allowing lawmakers’ expenses to be paid gives representatives of special interests access to legislators alone and away from Sacramento and public view. Organizers say the conference gives legislators a chance to discuss important issues in a relaxed setting away from the Capitol, but Blakeslee is not convinced lawmakers need to travel so far.
“To the degree educational meetings are useful, the vast majority of them could be conducted in California at the Holiday Inn Stockton,” Blakeslee said.
Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) had travel covered to Morocco, El Salvador, Mexico and Puerto Rico. That represented a large part of the $24,381 in gifts he received last year, the second-highest amount in the Legislature.
“The pro tem has been proud to lead several California delegations that will result in more bilateral cooperation on trade, economic innovation, human rights and climate action,” said Anthony Reyes, a spokesman for De León.
Meals and lodging
Besides travel, meals are the most prevalent gift reported by lawmakers, and many of them are at swanky restaurants.
Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) and Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) were among nine lawmakers treated to a March 2016 dinner by the California Cattlemen’s Assn. at the Kitchen, an upscale restaurant in Sacramento. Galgiani’s share of the bill was $297.
She and her spouse received a $353 dinner at Sorento’s in Sacramento in November, with the tab picked up by the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
Bob Alvarez, her chief of staff, said groups routinely divide up the bill for such large events without it necessarily meaning that the legislator got that much value of food. The state requires the approximate value to be disclosed.
“Essentially, from a member’s perspective, you’re invited, you go, you eat something, then someone sends you a letter [stating the value of the gift] regardless of what or how much you ate.”
De León received $3,100 in lodging and meal expenses at the Pebble Beach golf resort from the Assn. of California Life and Health Insurance Cos. and the Governor’s Cup Foundation in exchange for speeches.
Tickets to sporting events were another popular gift last year, with lawmakers receiving free admission to San Francisco 49ers and USC football games, Oakland A’s baseball games, Sonoma Raceway car racing and the Folsom Rodeo.
For example, Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) accepted four tickets worth $400 from the Pasadena Rose Bowl Operating Co. to attend a match between the Chelsea and Liverpool English football clubs.
Lawmakers also received gifts allowing them to play sports. Mayes reported accepting $880 in golf games, half of it provided by the state prison guards union.
Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblywomen Autumn Burke (D-Marina Del Rey) and Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) reported getting spa treatments as gifts, with Mitchell’s appointment while she was staying at the Pebble Beach golf resort being the most costly at $480.
The political fundraising firm McKinley and Pillows paid for the treatments for Mitchell and Burke ($204), while energy storing company AES provided Garcia’s $180 treatment at the Mellow Me Out spa in Sacramento.
Other methods of relaxation included a $50 Cuban cigar given to De León by the Sacramento County Labor Council. Rendon accepted a $68 bottle of Scotch from a state worker, and a $279 bottle of Moutai liquor from the secretary of the Chinese People’s Congress.
Lawmakers know that if they want to see a concert or go to an amusement park, the sponsors of the venues or other corporations can usually be counted on for free tickets.
Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) received two tickets worth $318 from AT&T to see singer Juan Gabriel in Sacramento.
Meanwhile, De León was one of a few lawmakers to accept free tickets to SeaWorld and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Lawmakers including Democratic Assemblymen Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles and Tony Thurmond of Richmond received tickets to Disneyland, while Walt Disney Co. gave $84 in tickets to the film “Jungle Book” to Assemblyman Dante Acosta (R-Valencia).
Amusement park tickets were among the gifts that would have been banned by the legislation introduced three years ago by De León but vetoed by Gov. Brown.
The bill would have reduced the value of gifts that could be accepted by an elected official from a single source in a year from $440 to $200. It also would have banned gifts from lobbyists and lobbying firms to the governor and legislators.
The measure also would have barred officials from many kinds of gifts, including tickets to professional sports contests, entertainment events and amusement parks, as well as free golf games and entertainment.
A few lawmakers did not report accepting any gifts last year. They include Sens. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula), Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), Steve Glazer (D-Concord) and John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), and Assemblymen Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and Phillip Chen (R-Brea).
Moorlach said that if he attends an event that includes food or drink, he writes a check to reimburse the cost. Legislators receive annual pay of $104,000 in addition to tax-free per diem of about $31,000 annually to cover living expenses while in session in Sacramento.
“I take no gifts. That’s always been my policy,” Moorlach said. “I’m independent.”
Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report
3:37 pm: This article was updated to include comment from a spokesman for Senate leader Kevin de León.
This article was originally published at 2:20 p.m.
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