Consumer group likens South America trip to Abramoff junkets

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Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, CA — A consumer group on Thursday likened a two-week South American trip taken by legislators, state regulators and the governor’s chief of staff to luxurious congressional junkets arranged by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But the head of the nonprofit group that paid most of the costs said the visit to Brazil, Argentina and Chile in November was a vigorous study tour that focused mainly on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and was not a vacation.

“It was very ambitious,” said Patrick Mason, president of the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy. “We had to get up at 6 most mornings. We were traveling.”

The foundation, whose members include corporations, labor unions and environmental groups, finances conferences and annual overseas trips for legislators and other state officials that look for ways to solve problems facing the state, Mason said.

This year’s trip began two days after the Nov. 7 election and wrapped up Nov. 22, although some participants had a later departure from California and some stayed in South America after the tour was over, Mason said.

Participants included Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, Susan Kennedy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s chief of staff, and representatives of the state Energy Commission and Public Utilities Commission.Sens. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, Mike Machado, D-Linden, and George Runner, R-Lancaster, and Assembly members Rick Keene, R-Chico, John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, Lloyd Levine, D-Sherman Oaks, Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, and Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, also went along.

The group included representatives of Chevron, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Conference of Carpenters, Southern California Edison Co., Sempra Energy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as spouses or partners of several of the travelers, including those of Kennedy and Nunez.

The foundation did not pay for the spouses and partners and the personal travel, Mason said.

The group stayed at five luxury hotels, including the Copacabana Palace, which bills itself as the “most luxurious hotel” in Rio de Janeiro, and the Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires, which offers guests a “personal butler.” Mason said the tour’s participants did not get butlers.

Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said the tour included a considerable amount of free time and gave groups that lobby the Legislature and administration extensive access to public officials.

“This is Jack Abramoff’s golfing trips to Scotland, only with more bathing suits,” said Heller, noting that Mason’s group recommended that travelers bring workout clothes, swim suits and comfortable walking or hiking shoes.

“The companies on the trip got days of uninterrupted lobbying and socializing with these public officials, who will certainly remember their all-expense-paid vacation to the Copacabana when the lobbyists demand special favors in Sacramento,” he said in a statement.

Abramoff, a once-powerful Washington lobbyist, is serving a nearly six-year prison term for a fraudulent Florida casino deal. He also is cooperating in a corruption investigation that has shaken Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

The Santa Monica-based consumer group obtained itineraries and other records about the South America trip through a California Public Records Act request.

“The average citizen will never be on an even playing field with powerful business interests that spend tens of thousands of dollars wining and dining and vacationing with government officials like this,” Heller said. “There should be a bright line that prohibits officials from taking international trips paid by private interest groups.”

He suggested that if there were compelling reasons for officials to travel overseas, the state should pay for it.

But Mason said overseas trips are important and asserted that the state would never agree to pay for them.

“It gets back to how we learn,” he said. “We will never outgrow the need to learn through firsthand information and contacts.”

The tour included presentations on ethanol and biodiesel fuels, clean development mechanisms, the use of public-private partnerships to pay for new infrastructure and an electronic deposit system for toll road travel, according to the itinerary obtained by Heller’s group.

There also was a four-hour trek to a Brazilian pig farm that included a mile walk in the rain to look at efforts to reduce methane gas, a contributor to global warming, Mason said.

But the trip also included some tourist activities, Mason acknowledged. That included a visit to Paraty, Brazil, a colonial city founded in 1667, and a boat tour of coastal islands.

“We’ve learned that we cannot work these folks 10 to 12 hours a day, every day,” Mason said. “We’ve got to give them down time.”

He defended the use of luxury hotels, saying the tour did not pay standard rates and that staying in less-expensive accommodations could be dangerous.

“You can’t do that in third world countries and come out alive,” he said. “It gets very dangerous very fast,” he said. “We stay in the best neighborhoods we can.”

A spokesman for Nunez, Steve Maviglio, also rejected Heller’s description of the trip as a luxurious junket, mentioning the trek to the pig farm.

“The fact is that South America is way ahead of California in its use of alternative fuels, and you have to see it to believe it,” he said.Julie Soderlund, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said the trip gave Kennedy an opportunity to lobby legislators on the governor’s environmental and energy proposals.

On the web: Virtually visit the hotels where the tour members stayed:

Consumer Watchdog
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