Duvall Incident Spotlights Politicians’ Perks In Capital

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SACRAMENTO, CA — For many who join the select club of 120 known as the California Legislature, everything changes. Once inside, they find an army of lobbyists and corporate executives at their disposal, more than eager to shower them with food, drink, travel and — in some cases — sex.

The case of Michael Duvall, the 54-year-old Yorba Linda assemblyman who resigned Wednesday after the disclosure that he bragged over an open microphone of apparent sexual trysts, is a window into a world in which those who vie to sit through dreary legislative meetings can be rewarded in more bacchanalian ways.

Beyond lavish meals with fine wines, special interests offer overseas junkets, pro basketball games and weekends at spas and golf resorts that pair their lobbyists with lawmakers.

"When you’re in Sacramento, the entire city is dedicated to making you feel important and special," said Don Perata, a former state Senate leader.

An investigation of Duvall’s actions is under way. He was vice chairman of a utilities committee, and the probe centers on his alleged relationship with a lobbyist for Sempra Energy — possibly one of the women referred to in the videotape that captured him graphically describing his sexual encounters.

Sempra said its employee has denied an affair but the company is investigating. Duvall issued a statement Thursday saying that his resignation did not amount to an admission of an illicit relationship.

Also on Thursday, Assemblyman Jeff Miller of Corona, the fellow Republican who listened to Duvall’s tales at a lull in a legislative hearing in July, was stripped of his post on the Assembly ethics panel, which is conducting the investigation.

Meanwhile, advocates for government accountability demanded greater disclosure of contacts between lawmakers and lobbyists, and called on a lobbyists’ association to expel anyone who has had sex with an official he or she is attempting to influence.

Jackson Gualco, head of the Institute of Governmental Advocates, a Sacramento trade group representing lobbyists, said the organization already has a strict code of conduct to prevent inappropriate relationships, and noted that the state has strict rules requiring disclosure of lobbyist activities as well as regular ethics training.

"There are some good checks and balances," Gualco said.

But fraternization between lawmakers and lobbyists has been part of Sacramento life for decades, as it is in other state capitals and in Washington, D.C.

In 1974, Californians created the Political Reform Act by approving Proposition 9, which restricts lobbyists to spending no more than $10 a month entertaining an individual lawmaker. And in the 1980s, legislators were earning thousands of dollars giving speeches to companies with interests at the Capitol.

After an FBI sting implicated some of them in trading votes for income,Californians passed a ballot measure banning the practice of accepting honoraria.

Still, examples abound of the steps that lobbyists, with their corporate employers footing the bills, take to gain chummy access to lawmakers and exert influence.

At the annual "Speaker’s Cup" at Pebble Beach this year, dozens of lobbyists had a chance to rub elbows with Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

One lobbyist, Darius Anderson, has been known for arranging trips to Cuba.

The state prison guards’ union has sponsored lawmakers’ voyages to Maui, paying for some of their expenses there.

At least one company, BP America, has set up an automated hotline that lawmakers and staff can call for freebies to concerts, shows and sports events. Legislators may even "ask a member of their own staff to call on their behalf," BP’s phone message says. The firm has spent more than $39,000 on giveaways since 2008.

One of the biggest spenders in Sacramento is AT&T, which has e-mail addresses that lawmakers and their staffs use to request tickets. The company reported $53,000 worth of giveaways in the first half of 2009, including a Britney Spears
concert and seats at a Lakers playoff game.

Doug Heller, executive director of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said the Duvall incident shows that lobbyists are increasingly pushing the envelope: the rise of "extreme lobbying," he calls it.

"I’m afraid this is not a once-in-a decade anomaly," Heller said.

Common Cause noted that Sempra Energy spent $800,000 lobbying California government in the first half of this year and was interested in 170 pieces of legislation. The firm, which frequently takes lawmakers and other officials to concerts and other events, has contributed $4.2 million to political campaigns in California since 2006.

That sum includes a relatively small $2,800 to Duvall, who voted Sempra’s way on at least four bills this year dealing with renewable energy and electricity rates.

Duvall, who owns an insurance company, reported $2,000 in gifts from special interests in 2008, including meals, drinks, concert tickets and a Bluetooth headset, but nothing from Sempra.

The Sempra lobbyist he was allegedly referring to in the video was hired by the company six months ago.

One longtime Sacramento lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of offending lawmakers, acknowledged that sexual relationships sometimes develop, although not many.

More commonly, big lobbying firms hire attractive women.

The legislators are thrilled by the women’s attention at fundraisers and other events, the lobbyist said.

"If there’s a beautiful woman sitting there that’s with you from your firm, you’re going to have at least half of the guys that are legislators come over and initiate conversations with her," the lobbyist said. "She doesn’t have to sleep with them, but it’s just the fact she’s there and she’s nice to them."

Male lawmakers are not the only targets. Former Sen. Sheila Kuehl, a Santa Monica Democrat and California’s first openly lesbian lawmaker, recounted that the National Rifle Assn. once sent a "really good-looking" woman, whom she took to be a lesbian, to lobby her against restrictive gun laws.

"Why would she be the one coming to talk to me to talk about the NRA?" said Kuehl, who left office in 2008. "I’m sure they said, ‘Let’s send her to talk to Sheila.’ I found it sort of amusing, actually."

She said the "fraternity atmosphere" in Sacramento isn’t as much about lobbyists as about " ‘I’m away from home so I’m going to play.’ "

Former Senate chief Perata said the atmosphere today actually is less freewheeling than in the 1970s, when he began working as a legislative staff member. Then, he said, "women were treated as sex objects."

That attitude has diminished since the advent of sexual harassment laws. The lesson of Mike Duvall, Perata said, is more about the perils of open microphones in a new media age. "What nailed this guy is technology," he said.

Contact the authors at:
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Times staff writers Shane Goldmacher and Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

Consumer Watchdog
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