By Sam Metz, THE PALM SPRINGS DESERT SUN
March 4, 2019
On Nov. 7, after he was re-elected to serve a second term in the California State Senate, Jeff Stone, R-La Quinta, hopped on a plane for a trip to Israel and South Africa.
“At the Los Angeles Airport after a busy and long campaign to spend some special time with my beautiful wife,” he wrote on Facebook above a picture of him and his wife. “Looking forward to spending 3 weeks with my love and catching up on our lost time together!”
But even though his campaign was over, his campaign spending was not.
Stone spent $8,330 out of his campaign coffers, to pay for airfare, taxis, lodging and food in Israel for him and his wife.
He was one of many California legislators to fund trips — domestic or abroad — using campaign contributions. The cash came from both large special interest groups and small individual contributors, and was leftover from his 2018 midterm election campaign.
In the months following the midterm election, candidates’ travel reignited criticism of the expansive influence business groups and wealthy campaign donors, who through gifts or campaign contributions, fund travel to junkets and conferences annually.
The consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog protested the trips and demanded their immediate disclosure.
“These junkets should not occur. But if they do occur, they should be disclosed in real time,” the group’s president Jamie Court said at the time.
Recently released campaign finance documents show that, as wildfires smoldered throughout California in the weeks following the election, legislators used campaign funds to travel to places like Hawaii, to discuss topics including how to regulate utility companies in the state, and Chile, to discuss lithium battery technology.
Chad Mayes and Eduardo Garcia, who represent the Coachella Valley in the State Assembly, used campaign contributions on travel and lodging to make multiple trips.
Mayes, R-Yucca Valley, spent $2,923 on travel and $5,628 on lodging after the election. He flew to Arizona in late November and Texas in early December on his campaign’s dime, in order to, according to his Chief of Staff Joe Justin, visit political strategists. Justin would not say which strategists Mayes met with in either place. He also attended the Independent Voter Project’s annual Maui confab at the $450-per-night Fairmont Kea Lani, along with more than a dozen legislators.
Garcia, D-Coachella, spent $2,918 on post-election travel and lodging for him and his family members. His trips included a visit to Mexico City, where he stayed in an Airbnb and led a delegation to meet with Mexican government officials.
Garcia said he saw no problem with using campaign funds to finance trips.
“As long as there’s legislative intent, I think it’s perfectly OK,” he said. “To a donor—whether they’re small, medium or large—our campaign and legislative efforts continue after the election, and the law allows us to utilize campaign funds in ways that are connected to campaign activity or legislative affairs.”
Stone’s travels to Israel, he said, allowed him to meet with officials in the Knesset, as well as businesses working on firefighting and desalinization technology, which he said was relevant to his work as a legislator. And even if the purpose of travel has to do with his job, the state senator said he preferred using campaign funds over taxpayer dollars.
“I wanted to go where the technology was that we need in California. Why not learn from them?” he said. “It was state business, but I don’t believe in charging the taxpayer for any travel, so we bill our campaign for that.”
Senate Leader Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, jetted to India and Bhutan with her spuse and a delegation of legislators. She spent a total of $3,873 on airfare and lodging.
The trip, where she and her spouse stayed at hotels including Tashi Namgay Resort in Bhutan and the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, “helped strengthen California’s ties with two of the fastest growing economies on the planet and will pave the way for future collaboration on a wide range of policy issues, from infrastructure to economic development and environmental protection,” she said in a post-trip press release.
Some legislators, however, do not dip into campaign funds to finance trips abroad. Assemblymember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, led a different delegation to India in December, but his campaign finance filings covering that period do not indicate he spent any campaign funds on the trip.
Although the expenses may not have been directly related to the campaign, using campaign funds for legislative purposes is legal, according to the rules laid out by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s campaign finance watchdog agency.
Former FPPC Chair Ann Ravel said politicians can use campaign contributions on travel expenses for themselves and their spouses, as long as the spending wasn’t lavish, according to a “reasonable person’s standard,” similar to how the IRS regulates what businesses can deduct from their taxes.
“There are a lot of ways you can use campaign funds, even after the campaign,” she said. “You can’t use campaign funds for entirely personal events, but you can for some travel that is mixed – where there’s some political business and some personal purpose.”
Ravel said politicians like Stone who mixed vacation with political meetings were obligated to parse their expenses and can only use campaign cash for expenses relevant to legislative affairs.
Stone said, unlike some politicians, he rarely used campaign funds for trips. His use of funds this year, he said, was a departure from his past behavior.
“In my 26 years of being a legislative official, I’ve never taken a trip,” he said “This is the first time I’ve used campaign funds, so it’s not like, ‘Jeff Stone uses campaign funds for junkets to go on vacation every year.’”
Sam Metz covers politics. Reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @metzsam.