California lawmakers say privately funded junkets — including treks to Japan, France and Greece — help them make better policy decisions. Government watchdogs say the trips open a door to corporate influence peddling.
The Orange County Register (California)
SACRAMENTO, CA — At the end of March, lawmakers and members of the Public Utility Commission joined corporate executives on a trip to Japan.
The expenses, valued at $8,000 to $9,500 per person, were picked up by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy ‘ a nonprofit in San Francisco funded and connected to firms represented on the trip.
Lawmakers say trips like these are valuable educational experiences; government watchdogs say they’re attempts to buy influence and circumvent the law, which bars corporations from buying trips for government officials or funneling money through organizations that can.
But without evidence, like a memo or an e-mail, directly linking corporate money to officials’ travel, the law says it’s OK.
“It’s extraordinarily frustrating,” said Carmen Balber of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer and Rights. The foundation recently uncovered documents showing the value of the Japan trip.
“You don’t need a smoking gun in California to know a $10,000 gift to the Speaker of the Assembly is illegal,” Balber said. “But the law does require that smoking gun if that $10,000 gift is funneled through a nonprofit organization. And that’s absurd.”
The Jack Abramoff case illustrates the kind of concrete evidence needed to substantiate such a connection. By now, it’s known the disgraced former lobbyist used the National Center for Public Policy Research and other nonprofits as intermediaries for himself and his clients to pay for trips to Scotland and other things. (At the time, businesses were allowed to pay for House of Representatives trips; Abramoff was trying to dodge a rule that required trip sponsors to be directly connected to the reason for the travel.)
But proving those links required a mountain of documentation and testimony: e-mails showing Abramoff arranging pass-through payments; donations dated the same day trips were taken; sworn statements by insiders.
I asked Bryan Sierra, a Department of Justice spokesman, why political corruption cases require reams of evidence. He said the burden of proof can be incredibly high.
For bribery, he said prosecutors have to prove the intent of two parties: the briber, who must be shown to have offered something of value and delivered it, and the bribed, who must be shown to have taken an official action directly because of that thing offered or delivered.
That can mean combing through drawers and drawers of correspondence and complicated records. And even that might not yield enough.
Sierra said the Department of Justice’s tact has been to pursue different charges with slightly lesser burdens of proof (Abramoff, among other things, pleaded guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud) while constantly searching for an inside source (like the now-cooperative Abramoff) to explain how the pieces fit together.
“It’s hard to do,” Sierra said, “but it can be done.”
P.J. Johnston, spokesman for the California Foundation, told me the frequent comparisons to Abramoff aren’t fair to the foundation. He said members don’t earmark their money for any particular expenditure and no one member controls the organization or contributes more than a small percentage of its overall budget.
Johnston said the group provides a valuable service to policy making in California by taking high-ranking officials on trips as well as hosting studious conferences on major issues.
Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine agreed. The senator traveled to Europe last year on a foundation trip to learn about water quality and public-private partnerships.
“These people do their homework well,” said Ackerman, who has also attended several of the foundation’s domestic events. He said he’s particularly impressed with its ability to attract top experts to its public policy conferences. “Anyone having to do with the subject matter, they have the people there.”
I asked Ackerman about something Balber, the government watchdog, had told me. Balber said that if international travel is so important for lawmakers and government officials, the Legislature should simply change the law to require the state to pay for all trips. Ackerman said he could see the point, but worried it would just spark criticism of government waste.
Another option is not to travel. Assemblywoman Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel, who could recall only one lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. in her legislative career, said she wouldn’t have qualms about taking more trips, but thinks there are more important tasks.
“I believe that right now I’m most effective being in Sacramento and being at home in the district,” she said.
Brian Joseph covers Capitol issues for the Register. To reach him, call 916-449-6046 or e-mail [email protected].