Campaign Donations Add Luxury To California Politics

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Some lawmakers use the gifts to finance the good life, expenditure reports show.

Sacramento, CA —
Some California lawmakers haven’t let the state’s financial calamity
keep them from enjoying the good life; they’ve been using campaign cash
for first-class travel abroad, expensive dinners, salon makeovers and
visits to luxurious spas.

Spending reports filed with the state covering the last three months show:

* Several lawmakers checked into the Fairmont Hotel on Maui on donors’
dimes two days after the start of an emergency session on the budget in

* The lead state senator on budget issues joined colleagues who left
the fiscal crisis behind to go to India, where they toured the Taj
Mahal and stayed at a Four Seasons and other luxury hotels.

* The former state Senate leader used campaign donations to pay $2,163
in membership fees to an exclusive Northern California social club.

"It’s so stomach-turning," said Doug Heller, executive director of the
nonprofit Consumer Watchdog. "There should be a self-imposed
prohibition on living the political high life when California’s budget
is in such disarray."

State law says campaign money may be spent only on things related to
political or government business, though it is permissible to take a
spouse along on a trip. Luxury journeys paid for with such funds are
typically justified as educational excursions — campaign finance
reformers call them junkets — organized by special interest groups,
most with business in the Capitol.

The state’s official ethics watchdog, the Fair Political Practices
Commission, recently enacted new rules requiring politicians to better
explain their expenses in public disclosures, after media reports of
lavish voyages around the world got their attention. But the rules have
not curbed spending on luxuries.

The lawmakers’ Hawaiian trip was for a conference sponsored mostly by
business associations and corporations. Half of each day was spent
discussing public policy issues, according to the conference agenda;
the rest was free for golf, tennis, snorkeling and shopping. Among
those in attendance were state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and his

Over the last three months, Calderon’s donors also footed the bill for
eight nights at Pebble Beach Lodge for an insurance conference; covered
a $91-per-person holiday dinner for six staffers at the Dal Rae
Restaurant in Pico Rivera; and paid for a $296 meal at the Pacific
Dining Car in Los Angeles. Contributors also treated him to a visit to
Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa and a $669 bill at the Scottsdale Luxury

"No tax dollars are attached to the expenses," Calderon said. "The events and these conferences prove very valuable."

Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) and his wife spent $4,368 at the
Fairmont Maui while attending the same conference as Calderon. And
Assemblyman Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) and his chief of staff spent more
than $3,500 in November to join other lawmakers on a trip to China,
where visits to museums and landmarks were interspersed with meetings
related to earthquakes, flood control and high-speed rail.

And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger held a retreat for 13 senior staffers at
Harlan Estate Winery, "set in the western hills of Oakville, rising
above the fabled Napa Valley benchlands," according to its website,
which adds: "The estate is over 240 acres of natural splendor;
oak-studded knolls and valleys."

The winery’s owner, Bill Harlan, covered the $12,100 cost of the
retreat. Vintners are working to stop an increase in taxes on alcohol
proposed by the governor to help close the state’s budget gap.

Derek Cressman, regional director of California Common Cause, says it is all in bad taste.

"It’s particularly galling, when taxpayers are tightening their own
belts, for them to see politicians using slush funds to travel the
world living the lifestyles of the rich and famous," he said.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego)
left for India with her husband in mid-November as the state deficit
ballooned. The trip, taken by several lawmakers, included a full day to
visit the Taj Mahal, an afternoon touring the cathedrals in the old
town of Goa and stays at some of the country’s finest hotels, including
the Mumbai Four Seasons.

"The trips she has taken have all been with pretty significant purpose," said John Ferrera, Ducheny’s chief of staff.

He said Ducheny went to India in response to a visit to California by
Indian officials who wanted to learn more about how others deal with
governmental problems.

Ducheny also used campaign funds to fly with her husband to the Maui
conference and to a meeting of state officials in Monterrey, Mexico.
She accumulated $41,000 in expenses in three months.

Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), Ron Calderon’s brother,
spent $2,200 during the first week in October to attend a conference on
the environment at an Ojai spa and the same insurance-industry event
his brother went to at Pebble Beach. More than $500 was spent on dinner
for four at the swank Peppoli at Pebble Beach.

"I don’t see it as a junket," the assemblyman said. "What you get out
of it all depends on the legislator and how strong a sense they have of
themselves and their purpose as a lawmaker."

He also spent $262 at the Salon by Maxime off Rodeo Drive in Beverly
Hills, saying that he was there with his wife and three sons to have
makeup done for the black-and-white photo that adorned the 2008
Christmas card the family sent to friends and supporters.

Former state Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) paid $2,163 to the
Bellevue Club in Oakland, a "premier social and fitness club housed in
a stunning historic mansion," according to its website.

Other expenses reported include:

* Sen. John Benoit (R-Palm Desert), spent $235 per person taking 12 campaign workers to an Angels game as a gift.

* Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) spent $3,457 for White House ornaments
at the White House Historical Society; he sent them to supporters and
staff members in December.

* Assemblyman Sandre Swanson (D-Alameda) used $8,500 for flights, food
and five nights at the Grand Hyatt Washington for President Obama’s

Contact the authors at:  [email protected]  and  [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
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