Assembly speaker lives with fundraiser in LA penthouse

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Associated Press

LOS ANGELES, CA — State Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez shares a luxury downtown penthouse with a
prominent fundraiser who has collected nearly $600,000 in fees and expenses from Núñez’s political committees and the state Democratic Party since 2005.

State law places no restrictions on legislators living with friends or fundraisers, but some government watchdog groups say such arrangements can raise potential conflicts because of the proximity of political power and contributors’ money.

Núñez, a Los Angeles Democrat and one of the state’s most powerful dealmakers, pays $1,000 of the $4,325 rent to live part-time in the loft-style penthouse in his district, which has 20-foot ceilings and jetliner views.

He also owns a $1.2 million ranch-style home in Sacramento with his wife, Maria Robles.

Núñez said in an interview that he sees no conflict living with his chief fundraiser, Dan Weitzman, a decade-long friend who began working as a fundraiser for him several years ago. He described his living expenses as above board and explained that he pays a share of the rent because he only uses one room and
spends only two or three days there a week.

“Dan and I have been friends for years; we are good friends,” Núñez said. “I brought him on to be my chief fundraiser because I needed someone who was going to work hard, and no one works harder than Dan Weitzman.”

Kathay Feng, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group California Common Cause, said Núñez’s living arrangement in Los Angeles is troubling because donors Weitzman solicits for money often seek an audience with Núñez because of his position as the second most powerful politician in California. A shared apartment could enable that access, she said.

Feng said the state Fair Political Practices Commission should expand its review of a complaint that was filed previously over Núñez’s use of campaign funds and investigate his living arrangement with Weitzman.

“Whether that cozy relationship as roommates leads to inappropriate or even illegal campaign activities is what I think would merit additional investigation,” she said.

Núñez spokesman Steve Maviglio said the speaker and Weitzman spend time together at the apartment only rarely. He said Weitzman also owns a home in Sacramento.

In a telephone interview, Weitzman said he and Núñez do not meet with or entertain donors at the building.

“It’s not that kind of place. I have an office there, fax machine, computer, phone,” he said.

Weitzman said his time at the apartment varies and that he typically is there a couple days each week. Asked about Feng’s comment that the arrangement raises potential ethical issues, he said, “I just disagree.”

Details of the speaker’s Los Angeles lifestyle were gleaned from interviews and records reviewed by The Associated Press and emerge at a time when Núñez has been under scrutiny for spending thousands of campaign dollars on lavish overseas trips, expensive dinners and fancy gifts. He has said there is nothing
improper about those expenditures.

Núñez, 40, the son of an immigrant gardener, grew up in Tijuana and a San Diego neighborhood distinguished by junkyards and liquor stores. Today, his mortgage, rent and property tax bills combined total more than $8,000 a month an amount about equal to his entire take-home pay as one of the state’s highest-paid lawmakers.

Núñez makes $130,000 a year in the Legislature, plus $170 for expenses each day the Assembly is in session. His wife also brings in a six-figure income through her political consulting business.

His glass, steel and concrete penthouse is a short walk from the Los Angeles Lakers’ home court, the Staples Center, in a trendy neighborhood that is in the midst of a housing boom.

“I don’t stay in a penthouse; it’s a loft,” Núñez said, referring to the two-story, top-floor apartment, which has hardwood floors and stainless steel furnishings. The building’s owner describes the unit on its Web site as a penthouse.

In Sacramento, his green-shuttered home with a manicured front lawn is surrounded by evergreens. It sits on a sizable lot along the American River. The couple bought the three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home in an affluent neighborhood east of downtown Sacramento in summer 2006.

Last summer, Núñez sold a home he owned in Sacramento for two years. His office said he made a profit of about $90,000 on the sale, but county records indicate he lost about $51,000 on the deal. A few months before the purchase, his wife also sold a home she owned for eight years in Claremont, a suburb east of Los Angeles, and made about $415,000.

Those funds helped pay the $300,000 down payment on their current home. To cover the remainder of the costs, they took out a $950,000, 30-year fixed mortgage. The monthly mortgage on the Núñez property is about $6,100, when last year’s interest rates are factored in.

Núñez expressed dismay that his lifestyle and living costs have been portrayed in the media as opulent and excessive. The remarks were his first since he walked away from a television reporter days ago while being questioned about the expensive meals and purchases he made with campaign money, disclosures
first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

“I am fully blessed that I’ve been able to live the American Dream. I’ve come from humble beginnings, and I’m never going to forget where I came from,” Núñez told the AP. “To be a good advocate of the poor, you don’t have to take a vow of poverty. I’ve lived that, and it’s not good.”

Núñez has been criticized this week by bloggers, newspaper columnists and even his allies in the labor movement for being out of touch, based on his spending habits: “There’s not too big a difference between how I live and how most middle-class people live,” Núñez told the Times.

California law requires that campaign fund expenditures for travel and entertainment be directly related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose.

Núñez’s expenses covered by campaign funds include $8,745 at the Hotel Arts in Barcelona, Spain; $5,149 for a “meeting” at a wine seller in France’s Bordeaux region; and $2,562 for “office expenses” at Louis Vuitton, a Parisian store that specializes in leather goods, clothing, fashion accessories and jewelry, the Times reported.

“Everything about that is on the record, it’s out there. It’s legitimate,” Núñez told the AP.

Núñez’s living arrangement with his campaign fundraiser raises further questions.

Jamie Court of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica-based advocacy group, said Núñez’s independence could be jeopardized because of his roommate’s ties to corporations, unions and other contributors that finance the speaker’s political ventures.

“It’s outrageous,” Court said. “If you are living with the point person for every major donor in the state, your so-called residence really turns into a back-room meeting place.”

Richard L. Hasen, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in election law, said he was unaware of any legal restriction that would prevent Núñez from living with his fundraiser.

“The potential for conflict of interest is going to be there, but I don’t think you can necessarily tar a legislator with improper action simply because there is some connection between them, a spouse or a friend,” Hasen said. “The ethical question is whether there was… some kind of sweetheart deal on the
rent or a possible quid pro quo.”

Feng said Núñez is not the first politician to share a living arrangement with a member of his or her campaign. But cumulatively, she said the information that has come to light in the last week about Núñez’s use of campaign funds for travel and entertainment and his living situation merits investigation.

The speaker’s split residences also raise questions about whether Núñez lives in his district or merely visits there.

Núñez claims the Sacramento address as his primary residence for tax purposes but lists his L.A. penthouse as his address on voter registration rolls.

State elections law says a lawmaker’s domicile “shall be conclusively presumed to be at the residence address” listed on the lawmaker’s voter registration affidavit.

But Nicole Winger, communications director for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said state election law is not specific enough to address situations such as Núñez’s.

“That appears to be a question for the Franchise Tax Board or the Internal Revenue Service,” she said.

Lance Olson, Núñez’s campaign lawyer, said there is nothing wrong with Núñez’s setup. In fact, he said, the law is written to protect lawmakers in the speaker’s situation.

“Legislators do spend the majority of their time in Sacramento, and that’s recognized,” he said.
Michael Blood reported from Los Angeles and Aaron Davis from Sacramento.

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