Assembly leader hit for lavish spending

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San Jose Mercury News (California)

SACRAMENTO, CA — Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez came under fire Friday after a report showed that the lawmaker — who has long fashioned himself as a champion of the poor — has used thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to make lavish purchases.

Trips to Europe, expensive dinners, extravagant hotel stays and $2,500 worth of gifts from luxury retailer Louis Vuitton in Paris have created a swirl of questions about the Los Angeles Democrat who, aside from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is arguably the Capitol’s most powerful elected official.

“It gives the impression that power has gone to his head,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Elected officials often grow very fond of their perks, but he’s done so in a very dramatic and visible way.”

Núñez took the brunt of the criticism Friday — though no one suggested he had done anything illegal — but government watchdogs also questioned what they consider to be lax campaign expenditure rules that allow lawmakers to use their campaign funds in ways that many would characterize as only loosely related to state business.

Some continue to call for tighter regulations, but they also are aware that lawmakers are not likely to embrace the idea and that, even if they did, there always seems to be a loophole.

Much of the extravagance detailed in Núñez’s spending report revolved around several overseas trips he has made in his three years. For example, he ventured to Europe earlier this year to study France’s high-speed rail system and preschool programs.

Global traveling

He’s also gone to Germany and Denmark to look at their renewable-energy programs and to South America to examine global warming solutions. Many lawmakers make overseas trips under the auspices of state business, but it was the level of spending in Núñez’s report that raised eyebrows.

His long list of expenditures, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, also highlights the often blurred line between political activities and personal indulgence.

The spending included $47,412 on United Lufthansa and Air France; $8,745 at the exclusive Hotel Arts in Barcelona, Spain; $5,149 for a meeting at Cave L’Avant Garden, a wine seller in France; $2,562 for two separate purchases at Louis Vuitton; and $1,795 at Le Grand Colbert, a Paris restaurant.

Reports on the secretary of state’s Web site show that Núñez has $5.3 million in his Friends of Fabian Núñez campaign account, even after spending $234,000 in the first six months of the year — and $474,000 last year. But it’s sometimes difficult without specific details – and Núñez is so far declining to elaborate — to gauge how much of the spending, if any, is personal and how much is directly related to his leadership role.

In his most recent campaign filing, Núñez reports spending $8,337 at the Silverado Resort in Napa — possibly to cover costs at the Assembly Democrats’ spring retreat — $4,969 at Fresh Cut Florist & Gifts in Sacramento, and $798 at Goodie Tuchews, a Sacramento bakery.

A spokeswoman for Núñez said his expenditures were entirely legal.

“Expenditures were properly disclosed,” said Beth Willon, “and described, as required by law.”

Núñez told the Times his travel is “not only justified but necessary for the decisions I need to make on a daily basis.”

Critics, however, said the expenditures are questionable, in part because they were made possible by large donations from special interests with business in front of the Legislature — including $290,000 from health insurers, just as the Legislature is considering health care reform.

Obvious connections

“Even if it’s all legitimate public business, following the letter of the law, he’s clearly enriching himself by flying around the world with special interest lobbyist money,” said Jamie Court, founder of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “And every time he takes a step toward helping the industry, the connections become more apparent. The real issue is: How does this type of lavish living on his contributors’ credit cards affect the health care debate? He’s clearly living high on his contributors’ dime. Yet, he claims he’s for the people.”

Legislators were loath to criticize Núñez’s spending habits; they either did not return calls or referred inquiries elsewhere.

Audit under way

Coincidentally, Núñez is among 30 legislators — including Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, and Assembly member Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View — selected randomly to have their campaign finances audited by the Franchise Tax Board. Results are scheduled to be completed by February.

California law requires that campaign fund expenditures be reasonably related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose.

Ron Nehring, the chairman of the state Republican Party, said it’s hard to see how extravagant expenditures “advance the cause” of Núñez — or his constituents.

“The blue-collar union worker whose dues are being taken,” he said, “I wonder what they think about their dues being used to buy Louis Vuitton shoes.”

A problem, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, is that Schwarzenegger has altered the public’s expectations on travel with his own globe-trotting ventures, paid for by various campaign accounts.

“People are comparing themselves to the governor, saying, ‘Hey, I’m the speaker, if the governor can do it, so can I,’ ” Stern said. “The governor has raised the bar in terms of lifestyle, and he’s not gotten burned.”

The Fair Political Practices Commission, which regulates campaign finances, has never ruled against luxurious non-personal expenditures, Stern said.

“It would be hard to enforce,” Stern said, “other than to say expenses could be the same as what you’d get from per diems you get from the state.”

Opponents of Proposition 93, a ballot initiative to loosen term limits — whose campaign is being run by Núñez’s campaign consultant — celebrated the news.

It is, they surmised, just one more example of legislators losing touch with voters.
Contact Steven Harmon at [email protected] or (916) 441-2101.

Consumer Watchdog
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