Lawmakers’ practices questioned
SACRAMENTO, CA — California state Sen. Kevin Murray has jetted to France, Cuba, Hawaii, Mexico, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., during the past three years, paying the $36,000 tab with money solicited from political supporters.
And he’s not alone.
Fifty-two of 95 incumbent legislators serving in 2003 and 2004 tapped into campaign funds for out-of-state travel during that period, according to records filed with the secretary of state.
The lawmakers collectively spent nearly $300,000 — perhaps much more because of limited reporting requirements — on trips that ranged from personal excursions to special-interest conferences to political party events to state-sanctioned visitations.
“Politicans depend on the inability of the public — including the press, to really get to the bottom of their politicking,” said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. ”They depend on the lack of transparency to hide their self-indulgence.”
When Sen. Edward Vincent visited his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio, last year, he spent $593 at the Holiday Inn and $469 for meals at Damon’s Grill. Asked the purpose of his trip, however, the Inglewood Democrat said he could not remember.
Campaign funds are private donations, not public funds, but they were solicited to benefit public elections, and state law requires them to be spent for a political, legislative or governmental purpose.
Trips bankrolled by campaign dollars are given little scrutiny, however. Only one of every four legislative races is randomly audited by the Franchise Tax Board after statewide elections. Few abuses are found, records show.
Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, said he believes that most trips are legitimate.
”You’re electing people to make decisions over your life,” he said. ”If you can’t trust their judgment on buying a plane ticket to New York, then you shouldn’t be voting for them.
”I understand that there are abuses, and I understand that people take advantage of the situation.”
Legislators largely decide for themselves what limits to set on job-related travel. Some decline to use campaign funds even for state or national conventions of their political party.
Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said she would expect to pay her own tab.
“It’s hard for people to give me money in my district. It’s not easy to raise it,” Wolk said. ”And I try to take good care of it and use it for what it was intended, which is to run my race.”
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said travel can be a good thing for the political process — exposing lawmakers to new possibilities.
”I think that in almost all cases there’s some legitimate reason for a trip — the question is, how legitimate?” he said. ”That’s pretty easy to determine if it was for a League of California Cities conference or a party convention. It’s when they go to Paris, London, Hawaii and those kinds of places that it gets a little dicey.”
Stern said traveling money typically is no object because few legislative races are hotly contested. ”It shouldn’t necessarily be called campaign money any more, because they don’t always need it for campaigns,” he said.
Assemblyman Russ Bogh, a Cherry Valley Republican who has used campaign funds for five Las Vegas trips in the past three years, said such travel generally involves speaking to political groups.
”Travel is part of the job,” he said.
Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, said he consulted with a political attorney two years ago before using campaign funds to help pay for a one-week trip to Costa Rica in which he and his wife, Maggie, stayed with a family there as part of a Spanish-language immersion program.
Before the trip, Cox had taken Spanish lessons for some time and his tutoring continues, aide Peter DeMarco said, adding that the senator also listens to instruction tapes in his car.
“I thought it was important — I still think it’s important — to learn to speak Spanish,” Cox said. ”I continue to work at it, though I’m not very good at it.”
Murray, D-Culver City, said he traveled to France to observe high-speed trains in preparation for California’s pending decision on whether to spend billions to create such a system.
”In the long run, it’s a $30 billion project, and the only way to do it, and make sure it will work, is to go and see it actually working,” he said.
Murray said there has been a legitimate public purpose for his other trips as well: The Cuba visit was to help farmers develop a new market; Hawaii was to attend political conferences; and his East Coast trips were for purposes ranging from meeting with congressional officials to speaking with recording industry executives about pending legislation.
”The interesting thing is, if you were going to Poughkeepsie or Minneapolis, nobody would question it,” he said.
Murray sees no need to expand the state’s disclosure rules.
”In the end, at what point is it enough sunshine to say that I spent money and went to Hawaii? If you’ve got problems with that, if a voter or constituent has problems with that, then the problem is going to be that I went there at all rather than what I did every five minutes.”
Battin, R-Palm Desert, said he has no regrets about attending the Maui conference sponsored the past two years by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Participants stay at a luxury oceanfront hotel, with their afternoons largely free, after attending morning discussions on topics that have ranged from the state’s redistricting process to the 2003 gubernatorial recall.
”One year I learned more about the budgeting process, and more importantly, how gimmicks were used in the accounting of it, than I had ever learned in eight or nine years in the Legislature,” said Battin.
The Hawaii conference provides a relaxed setting for building relationships and having frank discussions with members of both parties, outside the press of daily business, said Battin, who spent a combined $16,500 on the trips in 2003 and 2004.
“I’d go if it were in Bakersfield, because it gives me that setting,” Battin said. ”I don’t know if I’d bring my family if it were in Bakersfield, but I’d attend it.”
Calderon declined to comment on his multiple trips to Las Vegas, which disclosure forms list as involving a staff retreat, fundraising, conferences, meetings or give no explanation at all.
Heller, of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said trips to exotic locales are not illegal but can be an abuse of the system, nonetheless.
“It seems to me that politicians use their campaign funds as personal slush funds,” he said. ”Maybe they come up with some obscure excuse for a trip to Hawaii or a few nights in Vegas, but they’re certainly not reaching out to constituents when they make these trips.”
Stern is more disturbed by another kind of lawmakers’ trip, bankrolled not by campaign funds but by a nonprofit group, which can legally pick up the tab for any amount or destination. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nez, for example, recently returned from a nine-day trip to Sweden and France to study universal preschools.
Nez, D-Los Angeles, was a guest of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan group devoted to Latino voter empowerment.
Besides Nez and three Assembly colleagues, the trip included Antonio Gonzalez, president of the institute, and Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California, a group advocating voluntary preschool for the state’s 4-year-olds.
Assemblyman John Laird, a Santa Cruz Democrat who traveled with Nez, said the European visit provided an opportunity to see the pros, cons and challenges of universal preschool.
Laird said he did not feel lobbied at any point during the nine-day trip.
But Stern said such trips give a nonprofit group exclusive access to key legislators for extended periods of time, without being subject to spending limits.
”They say the best way to lobby legislators is to be on a private jet with them,” Stern said. ”Even if they want to leave, they can’t… Like they say in the MasterCard ad: Priceless.”
State Legislative Travel Law
California requires lawmakers to disclose travel-related expenditures from their campaign accounts. Political contributions are private funds, but state law requires them to be used for a public purpose. Disclosures cover specific periods of time, ranging up to six months. They are available at the secretary of state’s office or via the Web at: http://www.ss.ca.gov. Abuse or extravagance can be difficult to identify because disclosure forms do not require politicians to:
* List the legislative, political or governmental purpose served by any trip.
* Identify which cities they visit or tie multiple expenditures to a specific date.
* State the flight destination for payments made to an airline.
* Identify whom a legislator met with or for what purpose when large payments are made to a restaurant, resort or other such venue.