CA Common Cause: State lawmakers accepted $844,000 in gifts in 2013

Let the good times roll!

California lawmakers accepted $844,000 in gifts in 2013 — the majority of which came from special interest groups that routinely lobby the state Legislature.

According to a new report released by the good-government group California Common Cause, gifts to elected state representatives included $580,000 in travel payments, more than $100,000 in meals and receptions and $65,500 for tickets to entertainment and sporting events.

“With ongoing federal investigations into potential ethics violations by several state lawmakers, this report highlights that there are many legal channels through which special interests exert their influence in Sacramento,” Kathay Feng, executive director of CA Common Cause, said in a press release.

More than 2,700 gifts reported in 2013

Each state lawmakers received, on average, $600 worth of gifts every month. To put that number into perspective, it’s three times the freebies the average recipient of food stamps receives in California. According to the California Department of Social Services, “The average amount of CalFresh benefits received per household is about $200 per month.”

In total, state lawmakers reported more than 2,700 individual gifts in 2013, ranging from a $1.50 bottle of Coke to a $15,782 trip to Armenia. While meals were the most common item, the largest payments were for travel to exotic locations and accommodation in luxury hotels. Among the more unique gifts were:

  • $439 in tickets to a Drake concert given by the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority to Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland;
  • $216 in nail polish given by the Personal Care Products Association to then-Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who is facing charges of corruption;
  • $160 worth of golf fees and clubs given by the California Foundation on Education and the Environment to state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres;
  • $130 in spa services given by the California Legislative Black Caucus Policy Institute to state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Culver City;
  • $115 in seafood given by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation to Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles.

Gifts increasing in number and value

capitolFrontCA Common Cause says both the number and value of gifts increased dramatically in the past year. According to their report, state elected officials accepted approximately $216,000 in gifts and travel payments, including $41,000 in hotels and lodging; $30,000 for tickets to entertainment and sporting events; and more than $100,000 for meals and receptions.

“While Californians across the state exchange gifts this month in celebration of the holidays, its worth taking a minute to reflect on the year-round, not-so-secret Santa happening in the state Capitol,” said Sarah Swanbeck, policy and legislative affairs advocate for CA Common Cause. “What we’re seing is a growing trend in both the number of gifts and the total value of those gifts given by powerful special interest groups to state lawmakers.”

To compile its report, the group analyzed publicly available financial disclosure reports, which are filed annually with the Fair Political Practices Commission. That means the figures are likely to be lower than the actual total. State law does not require gifts under $50 in value to be reported on these Statement of Economic Interest forms. Financial disclosure reports for 2014 won’t be available until March 1.

Top Recipients of Gifts in 2013

John_Pérez_2011Legislative leaders topped the list of gift recipients in 2013, with former Speaker of the Assembly John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles, taking home nearly $38,000 in gifts and perks. The Top 10 recipients, according to the report:

  1. Assemblyman John A. Perez: $37,823;
  2. Sen. Ricardo Lara: $32,492;
  3. Sen. Anthony Cannella: $26,644;
  4. Assemblyman Steven Bradford: $25,408;
  5. Assemblyman Travis Allen: $23,118;
  6. Sen. Kevin de Leon: $22,910;
  7. Assemblyman Scott Wilk: $21,780;
  8. Assemblywoman Connie Conway: $20,675;
  9. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia: $20,600;
  10. Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen: $17,603.

All of the state lawmakers listed in the Top 10 of gift recipients utilized the longstanding loophole that allows elected officials to circumvent the state’s $440 gift limit.

Legislators gone wild on junkets

State officials can accept gifts that exceed the state’s gift limit if it is for travel-related expenses in conjunction with a speech or conference. Special interest groups routinely take advantage of this loophole by organizing “conferences” in exotic locales. In 2013, the two biggest donors helped state lawmakers jet off to Scandinavia, Taiwan and Maui, courtesy of this loophole.

The biggest gift-giver to state lawmakers was the California Foundation on the Environment & Economy, which spent $161,893 in travel-related gifts. It was followed by the Independent Voter Project, which spent $38,080 in 2013.

Fairmont kea laniFounded by former Assemblyman Steve Peace, the IVP hosts a notorious annual conference in Maui. Eighteen state lawmakers attended the group’s 2013 conference, held at the luxurious Fairmont Kea Lani, “Hawaii’s only all-suite and villa luxury oceanfront resort.”

The travel gift loophole has been criticized by newspapers and ethics experts.

“Almost all of this largesse came courtesy of people and organizations with business before the Legislature,” the Press-Democrat recently editorialized. “With all the junkets and outings, it’s a wonder they find time for any business.”

Sacramento: Only place there’s still a free lunch

While travel-related gifts accounted for nearly 70 percent of the dollar amount, the most frequent gift given to legislators in 2013 was a free lunch. That’s gifts of meals and drinks; and attendance at receptions, events and hospitality suites.

In the area of free meals, the California Democratic Party donated more than any other group, according to CA Common Cause. The state party spent nearly $10,000 to wine and dine its members.

Top 10 gift-givers

The top 10 gift-givers in 2013 were:

  1. California Foundation on the Environment & Economy: $161,893;
  2. Independent Voter Project: $38,080;
  3. Consulate General of the Republic of Armenia: $25,173;
  4. State Legislative Leaders Foundation: $24,027;
  5. Pacific Policy Research Foundation: $22,015;
  6. Taipai Economic and Cultural Office: $32,533;
  7. California Issues Forum: $18,902;
  8. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles: $17,989;
  9. American Israel Foundation: $12,737;
  10. California Democratic Party: $10,556.

This article was originally published at CalWatchdog.com