The chairman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, Ross Johnson, said widespread overseas travel by top state climate and energy officials on the tab of nonprofits funded by industry "raises very serious questions of propriety."
Consumer advocates called for a halt to the practice.
"There is a long-term public cost when private interests fund government travel," said Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog. "We are fooling ourselves if we think that Chevron funds these political escapades for the benefit of society."
The Bee – in an article published Sunday – reported that more than two dozen top climate and energy officials, at least 19 legislators, more than 30 business executives and a handful of spouses and partners have participated in such trips since 2006. Much of the financial support for the trips comes from energy and utility companies that are major greenhouse gas emitters.
"I think you as a citizen ought not to have to worry about the possibility of undue influence over elected and appointed officials. And this kind of opportunity can leave ordinary citizens wondering, ‘What’s all this about?’ " said Johnson, a 26-year veteran of the Legislature.
But Johnson stopped short of calling for a change in the state’s 35-year-old Political Reform Act, which restricts gifts to policymakers, regulators and legislators to $420 a year per company but places no limit on travel expenses paid by nonprofits.
"We’ve done what we currently believe we have the statutory authority to do to put restraints on gifts of travel," said Roman Porter, executive director of the commission. Further changes in the law, he said, would require legislative action or a ballot initiative.
Heller, at Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, said that with many lawmakers participating in the trips, reform may prove difficult.
"It’s going to take a politician who is willing to stand up and say: ‘We’ve got to take some responsibility for the public distrust and fix this problem,’ " Heller said. "These trips are part of the reason Californians have so little faith in their officials."
Among legislators who took overseas trips through the California Foundation for the Environment and Economy were Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who chairs the water, parks and wildlife committee and sits on both the natural resources and utilities and commerce committees, and Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, who sits on the environmental quality committee as well as the powerful Senate appropriations committee.
CFEE receives financial support from 30 business and corporate members, ranging from Goldman Sachs to Pacific Gas and Electric.
Also traveling with CFEE was then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, who went to South America in 2006, the same year he authored the pioneering Global Warming Solutions Act. Three current members of the Senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee went on trips to South America, Japan and New Zealand.
Contact The Bee’s Tom Knudson at: (530) 582-5336 or [email protected].