CAMPAIGNS: Despite new rules, state lawmakers’ expenses often appear unrelated to being elected.
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SACRAMENTO, CA — California legislators last year spent more than $1 million in campaign donations on hotels, overseas travel, meals at upscale restaurants and other expenses seemingly unrelated to running for office, according to year-end finance reports filed recently.
California prohibits spending campaign money for personal use. But state law gives lawmakers wide latitude about how they use their campaign contributions, requiring only that the expense be "reasonably related" to a political, legislative or governmental purpose.
A Press-Enterprise review of legislators’ filings found that many have only vague descriptions of expenses or nothing at all, despite efforts by the state’s campaign-finance watchdog to improve the transparency of how politicians spend the millions of dollars they collect from businesses, unions and other donors.
Lawmakers representing Riverside and San Bernardino counties generally spent much less than their peers on "transformational training," "fact-finding" trips to Denmark and similar expenses that lack an obvious link to an election campaign. But some Inland legislators had big-ticket items.
Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia, spent almost $5,000 on hotels, including $3,257 for a staff retreat at the Lake Arrowhead Resort in December. Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, reported spending $1,054 at the Peppermill Hotel Casino in Reno for a conservation conference.
Lawmakers and their representatives said they are following all the rules.
Political contributions pay for more than yard signs or campaign ads, they say. Spending campaign donations on dinners with local council members or conferences in Spain help them to cultivate relationships and learn about the issues, with no cost to taxpayers.
"Political funds are for many, many purposes," said Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Montebello, one of the Legislature’s top spenders on meals and hotels last year.
State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, reported spending $746 at upscale home retailer Williams-Sonoma and $1,150 at Fry’s Electronics. In an e-mail, Florez said the expenses reflect the purchase of a coffee machine, espresso machine, wine glasses and bottle openers for Democratic caucus receptions, and a computer for his office.
He also spent $471 at outdoors store REI. Florez said the money paid for cots to sleep on during last year’s all-night budget sessions.
"Sleeping on the ground was getting old," Florez said.
Lawmakers earn a $95,291 per year base salary, down from $116,208 last year. Lawmakers also receive a more than $30,000 tax-free living allowance.
Lawmakers filed campaign statements for about 300 committees in 2009, with the latest due Feb 1. They showed about $38.4 million in spending.
Most expenses reflect a direct payment, such as a check to a political consultant. But others reflect a payment to a sub-vendor, usually a credit card company.
Campaign credit cards paid for the bulk of more than $1 million in meals, shopping trips and other charges that seem unconnected to running for office, records showed. Those include:
Fine dining: Lawmakers reported spending more than $40,000 for meetings at a handful of upscale restaurants and bars near the Capitol: Chops Steakhouse ($18,876), Morton’s Steakhouse ($10,767), Ella Dining Room and Bar ($5,358) and Mix Downtown ($2,800).
Trips: Lawmakers reported spending more than $33,000 on fact-finding trips to Spain, Egypt and Denmark and $7,900 to attend a public-policy conference in Hawaii.
Limos: Lawmakers reported spending more than $29,000 on limousine services last year, much of it while attending the presidential inauguration in Washington.
Furniture: State Sen. Tony Strickland paid more than $2,000 for La-Z-Boy furniture. A campaign spokesman said the furniture was for the senator’s district office.
Buying online: Democratic lawmakers want Amazon.com to collect sales tax from California residents to help the state’s budget problems. The online company was popular with lawmakers of both parties in 2009. Democrats spent $11,620 there and Republicans spent $2,695.
Tickets: Legislators reported spending $8,500 for tickets to performances and sporting events, such as a Dodgers game.
Treasure hunt: Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, reported paying $500 to San Francisco Treasure Hunts for training. Spokesman Nick Hardeman said the money paid for a team-building exercise for her office during Chinese New Year celebrations.
Radio and rum: Los Angeles Assemblyman Isadore Hall’s campaign reported spending $157 for XM Satellite radio for the campaign and $270 for a meeting at Rum Jungle, which bills itself as the "hottest nightspot in Las Vegas."
No itemization: Assembly members Jeff Miller, R-Corona, Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, and Dan Logue, R-Linda, labeled $7,000 in office and meeting expenses as "miscellaneous expenses under $100." In an e-mail, Miller said the undisclosed expenses were legislative, political or governmental in nature.
Towing: Assemblywoman Noreen Evans’ campaign spent $744 on towing charges. Jill Nelson, Evans’ campaign consultant, said an aide had driven Evans to the Oakland airport for a flight to a conference in Long Beach. The aide got in an accident on the way back and had the car towed 60 miles to Santa Rosa, where Evans lives.
New ways of thinking: Assemblyman Tony Mendoza’s campaign account paid $795 to Mastery in Transformational Training, a Marina del Rey company which promises that program participants will "embrace a newfound sense of self-respect and self-love."
A spokeswoman said the money paid for leadership training for Mendoza’s campaign manager.
Gifts: Legislators reported spending more than $66,000 buying gifts last year. Some lawmakers kept it in the family.
On Dec. 21, state Sen. Ron Calderon bought a $182.70 present for his brother Charles from Big 5 Sporting Goods. On Dec. 24, he paid $100 to Starbucks for a present for his brother Tom, a consultant. The same day, Charles Calderon paid $400 for a Nordstrom gift card for Ron Calderon.
"I try to treat my brother as I would any other politician. If there was somebody not related to me who was a senator, I’d be using political funds to give them a gift," Charles Calderon said.
Government watchdog groups say the contributions help donors win favor with lawmakers.
"Ninety percent of the money is for governmental access issues rather than re-election. Much of (the Legislature) have no re-election problem," said Robert M. Stern, former general counsel for the state Fair Political Practices Commission and president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.
"I think a lot of campaign money is not really for campaigns. It’s for the lawmaker’s own use related to a legislative, governmental or political purpose," Stern added. That definition is at the heart of a July 2008 state regulation to require legislators and candidates to better describe their spending on meals, gifts and travel.
The Fair Political Practices Commission’s action followed press scrutiny of campaign spending by former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and former President Pro Tem Don Perata. Nunez, for example, had spent tens of thousands of dollars on flights to Europe, wine, and purchases of purses and other gifts from Louis Vuitton, a high-end leather products store.
"The commission felt it would help the public decide for themselves if it was an appropriate expenditure of funds and make their decision at the ballot box appropriately," said Roman Porter, the agency’s executive director.
Yet there continues to be a lack of descriptions in many cases. For example, there were more than $290,000 in campaign expenses classified as "meetings and appearances" last year that included no description. Payees included golf courses, a Hooters restaurant and staffers.
In other cases, reports described the expenses as occasions to consider "campaign strategy" or to "discuss legislation" and left it at that.
"The regulations have increased transparency but they’re far from perfect. That’s largely because candidates are failing to do what they’re required to do: State clearly the political, legislative and government purposes of an expense," said Carmen Balber, the Washington director for Consumer Watchdog who submitted written testimony about the proposal in 2008.
"For one expense, there’s lots of detail. The next, nothing at all," Balber said of the filings. "Why is that? Is it because they lost the receipt? Or is it because the expense is hard to explain?"
Campaign finance reports filed with the state show that lawmakers spent a lot of money on meals, hotels and other items. Here are the top spenders in a few categories:
State Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello: $20,518
Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-Santa Maria: $16,793
State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter: $16,568
Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton: $15,265
Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Montebello: $15,060
State Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello: $28,543
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco: $27,798
Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Montebello: $20,186
Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Los Angeles: $12,408
State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter: $4,790
State Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield: $4,520
State Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks: $2,872
Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego: $2,599
Assemblywoman Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles: $2,514
Note: Expenses from Schedule E and Schedule G forms.
*Includes "meetings," "candidate travel" and "office expenses" at restaurants or catering. Excludes expenses described as "fundraising.
**Includes hotels, motels, extended stay inns, rent charges. Excludes fundraising.
*** Reflects purchases at Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, Apple store, Circuit City, etc. Excludes fundraising.