Dinners, Trips, Concerts Are Perks Of The Capitol

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SACRAMENTO, CA — Eager to accommodate Sacramento’s political leaders, interest groups picked up the tab for elected officials’ meals, overseas trips, concerts and sporting events last year, perpetuating what critics decry as the influence game at the Capitol.

Statements of economic interests filed last week by elected officials with the state’s watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, provide a glimpse into the gift-giving culture woven into the age-old system of political favors traded among politicians and their well-financed courtiers.

Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, for instance, accepted tickets to a Neil Diamond concert from AT&T; four tickets valued at $155, courtesy of Microsoft, to a Major League Soccer game at the Oakland Coliseum late last spring to see English star David Beckham’s Bay Area debut; and four free tickets worth $385, for a day with his family at Universal Studios a year ago.

"My wife’s a big fan," said Torrico in explaining why he accepted the concert tickets.

Torrico insisted he gives no more access to lobbyists than to regular citizens, but he declared he is swearing off gifts for the remainder of his time as an elected official.

This month, he introduced legislation to ban all gifts because he worries that the public wrongly perceives that lawmakers are vulnerable to the flattery and attention showered on them by interest groups.

Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley, took an all-expenses-paid 10-day trip to Madrid, Spain, last spring   valued at $10,372.93, thanks to the largesse of the San Francisco-based California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.

"Spain has been doing public-private partnerships for four decades, and it’s important to learn what’s happened," said Hayashi, who heads the Assembly Business and Professions Committee, which handles public-private partnership issues. "Spain provides one of the best case studies for California."

Lawmakers said the gifts were legal and modest — in some cases serving the public interest — and had no bearing on votes they cast.

But critics say that those who bear gifts expect to gain access to elected officials in a way that everyday citizens can’t: They get phone calls returned, schedule private meetings, or even have letters sent on their behalf to an
enforcement agency to help them out.

"When someone does something nice for you, you’re inclined to pay them back that’s just human nature," said Derek Cressman, regional director for California Common Cause, a nonprofit government watchdog group. "Lobbyists have figured that out and used it to their advantage."

Torrico said the gifts have no influence and access to him is easy to obtain.

"Nobody’s getting anything in return," he said. "I think they’re hoping to get access to us and get to know us so that when the time comes when an issue comes up they have a relationship with us. In their mind, they get a chance to talk with us about their company and industry and educate us.

"But if you look at my schedule, I have meetings every day with constituents and groups that represent children, the disabled and others. I give access to most people who ask for meetings."

Hayashi’s trip included at least two daylong guided tours of some of Spain’s attractions, such as the ancient city of Toledo. But she insisted the trip was not a junket, pointing to a rigorous itinerary that included four full days of briefings on such issues as desalination, high speed rail and public-private partnerships on infrastructure projects.

No family members, friends or staff members were allowed on the trip. She also declined three other trip invitations.

"I’m very careful about what I choose to do," she said. "I’m very careful about the perception. It has to be meaningful."

Business and labor groups often creep up to the edge of ethical concerns by financing lavish legislative outings. In December, at the height of budget negotiations, trial lawyers and unions representing carpenters and firefighters who had a deep interest in the outcome of the budget   footed a $13,440 bill to cover the Senate Democratic retreat at the posh Wine and Roses Hotel and Spa in Lodi.

Each of the 24 members was treated to four meals and an overnight stay at a cost of about $560 each.

Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, a leader in the campaign finance reform movement, said it’s unavoidable that interest groups step in to fund caucus outings.

"In a perfect world, the Legislature would be able to have public or self-generated money to have a retreat to discuss important policy issues," she said. "But California is in no position to fund these things. These things are patched together as best as can be. Usually, it’s organizations that tend to see issues in the same way we do."

No elected official should be allowed to accept gifts of any kind from lobbyists, interest groups, trade groups, corporations or labor unions, because there is no public purpose to them, said Doug Heller, executive director with Consumer Watchdog.

"Gifts are insidious because they’re pervasive and subtle," Heller said. "When politicians are willing to accept gifts, they start to tread on the muck and that’s when things get dirty."

It’s illegal to trade gifts for legislative action, but the "dirty gray area," Heller said, is how much that gift – and the relationship that’s built through acts of friendship – affects a lawmaker’s decisions even when there’s no direct quid pro quo.

"That’s where the public loses the most," Heller said. "It’s in that murky environment that politicians’ social obligations become a conflict. When you’re in a relationship that values gift giving, it becomes a reciprocal relationship."

Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101 or [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdoghttps://consumerwatchdog.org
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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