California Assembly Committee Budgets Conceal Travel By Lawmakers’ Personal Aides

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Much of the money spent for travel by Assemblycommittees this year went to fly personal aides of Southern California legislators round-trip between the Capitol and their districts.

The trips contradict what the Assembly tells Californians in its annual expenditure report – that committee travel funds are used primarily for hearings to serve the public.

"Staff travel expenditures reported by committee are generally costs incurred in connection with interim committee hearings which are generally held away from Sacramento for the convenience of citizens who wish to provide testimony," the Assembly's annual notice reads.

The disparity offers another example of how difficult it is to pinpoint how much taxpayer money lawmakers use to run their personal offices. Assembly financial reports minimize what individual lawmakers spend by charging costly personal office expenses to the budgets of committees that do the brunt of the policy work in the house.

Nearly three of every four travel dollars spent by committees from December through July were for trips by lawmakers' personal aides, roughly $48,500 of $67,000. Documents released by the Assembly do not specify a reason for travel in every trip involving a personal aide, but many do, and virtually none cite committee hearings.

According to a Bee review of 507 pages of Assembly committee records, personal aides flew on 102 of 138 flights bankrolled by committees during those eight months. Dollars spent for travel paid for other things as well, including hotel rooms, rental cars, parking fees, and gasoline reimbursement when personal vehicles were used.

The Bee reported last month that more than $8 million in salaries for more than 170 personal aides – who staff legislators' Capitol or district offices – had been paid by Assembly committees during that time span. Travel records show that costs of trips they take are paid by committees as well.

Ted Costa, head of People's Advocate and a political watchdog who launched the successful recall drive against former Gov. Gray Davis, said that the Assembly's failure to disclose scores of flights by personal staff as member expenses can harm its credibility.

"I'm not surprised by anything they do," Costa said. "But everyone should know what they're spending it for and why they're spending it. They're working for the public. That's who they're working for – they lose track of that."

Assembly administrator Jon Waldie said that recording such flights as a committee expense is justified because duties can overlap in the Capitol.

Lawmakers who chair a committee often have their chief of staff supervise both personal and committee staff, for example, and a scheduler or spokesman also tend to assume dual roles, Waldie said.

"I can't get to black-and-white accounting, because we don't have black-and-white jobs here," Waldie said.

'We're one team'

Travel for Assembly aides on a committee's payroll generally is recorded as an expense of that committee, regardless of the reason for their trip, Waldie said.

The Senate – unlike the Assembly – does not pay for salaries or trips of personal aides with committee funds, administrator Greg Schmidt said.

The Assembly's accounting practices can obscure how much of its $146.7 million annual budget is discretionary spending by members and how much is necessary committee expense. It makes it difficult to compare spending by individual lawmakers and determine whether they are spending in ways that taxpayers might consider wasteful.

Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, for example, reported personal staff travel costs of $1,481 through July 31, ranking him 57th among 80 members. But that did not include 20 round-trip flights and related expenses totaling more than $9,400 for Fuentes' personal chief of staff, Raul Bocanegra, which was charged to the Appropriations Committee that Fuentes chairs.

Bocanegra, who is campaigning in Los Angeles to succeed Fuentes in the district next year, commuted most weeks from Los Angeles to the Capitol, records show. He consistently wrote a one-word reason for his trip: "Legislative."

Fuentes' spokesman, Ben Golombek, issued a written statement saying that Bocanegra's duties include managing a Capitol and Los Angeles office and that he has a hand in virtually all aspects of the legislator's duties, ranging from personnel matters to working with the committee staff.

"We're one team in our office, there's no delineation, which includes our budget, our travel, our office expenses," Golombek said.

Because the chief of staff has wide-ranging duties, Golombek said, "he's forced to travel the most to ensure that everything is being handled properly."

No records are kept to document hours spent by Bocanegra or other personal aides on committee duties. Committee chief consultants, not legislators' chiefs of staff, typically oversee day-to-day supervision of bill analyses. Chiefs of staffs may play a significant oversight role, however, that can range from attending committee meetings to discussing key issues.

Bocanegra's committee-funded travel had him in Sacramento many weekdays and in Los Angeles on weekends – and spending time in each location could be a boon to his campaign to win Fuentes' Assembly seat when the lawmaker is termed out next year. Sacramento is a haven for donor groups pushing legislation, while Los Angeles is where Bocanegra must court votes.

Panel funds 'staff retreat'

All of the Assembly Higher Education Committee's $6,900 in travel through July was spent by personal aides to its chairman, Democrat Marty Block.

His Chief of Staff Christopher Ward, for example, flew 15 times at committee expense – usually from the Capitol to Block's San Diego district when the Assembly adjourned on Thursdays. Block's office declined to comment, but Ward's Facebook page says he lives in San Diego.

Assemblyman Warren Furutani, one month before relinquishing control of a budget subcommittee, dipped into the panel's funds for two sets of airline tickets for four personal aides last November, records show.

The Gardena Democrat spent $1,140 of the panel's funds for plane tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars to send the four Capitol aides to Los Angeles for what was described as a "staff retreat."

Furutani spent an additional $812 in committee funds that same day, Nov. 4, to buy the same four aides seats on a Southwest Airline flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles in December.

Neither of Furutani's trips was recorded as a member expense. They are a current-year committee obligation because paperwork was processed after Dec. 1.

Assembly members who chair policy committees negotiate an annual budget each year with Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez that consists of a base $263,000 plus a sum that typically is more than necessary to fund the committee itself. The practice provides a cushion, not released publicly, for supplementing personal staff costs.

The Bee and Los Angeles Times have filed suit to obtain the Assembly's member-by-member annual budgets. The lower house releases a list of member-by-member expenditures each year, but it routinely is not unveiled until 12 months after the end of the legislative year and does not identify personal staff costs paid with committee or caucus funds.

GOP faults data's accuracy

Waldie said that total spending by Assembly members who chair committees can be determined by combining member spending with committee expenditures. Simply add A and B, he contends.

But that formula would not identify how much each lawmaker spends for personal staff, a keystone of Capitol clout, because the equation does not single out fixed committee costs.

Francisco Estrada, chief of staff to Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Pomona, flew seven times between Sacramento and her Southern California district this year at the expense of the Housing and Community Development Committee that Torres chairs. Estrada typically listed his reason for travel as district business, not committee business.

Estrada said travel forms do not provide a full picture of work he performed in the district, including meeting with constituents, city managers, community redevelopment officials and others who had an intense interest in a fiery committee issue: slashing redevelopment agencies to produce more revenue for the state budget.

Robin Swanson, Pérez's spokeswoman, noted that "every penny" spent on staff travel is reported – either as a member or committee cost.

But Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit group, said that per-member expenditure data must be meaningful and clear; listing a member's staff travel as $1,500, for example, makes no sense if committee funds multiply that by five.

"We're adults, we can understand truth, but we have a lot of trouble with games and deception," he said.

Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for Assembly Republicans, said the caucus sent a letter to Pérez months ago that said budget information released by the Assembly each year is "outdated and does not reflect an accurate picture of each member's expenditures."

The GOP letter was written in mid-August, days after Pérez vowed to create a task force to consider updating Assembly disclosure policies.

Three months later, no members to the task force have been announced.

Contact Jim Sanders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538 or [email protected]

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