SACRAMENTO, CA — When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled to Europe in June to visit his hometown and meet with the leaders of France and Britain, a little-known group led by two of the state’s most influential business leaders picked up the tab.
When a group of legislators and public utilities commissioners went to Japan in April to study telecommunication issues, another private organization composed of corporations, labor unions and environmental groups paid the way.
And when a lawmaker and several other state officials visited Europe that same month to study solutions to global warming, a third group covered much of the cost.
Most gifts to state elected officials are covered by a value limit of $390 a year that voters and the Legislature imposed in 1990 in response to a Capitol bribery scandal. But travel expenses that have a governmental purpose and are paid for by a nonprofit organization or government agency are exempt.
That exception has triggered a debate about the propriety of officials accepting free overseas travel from organizations whose contributors may have an interest in legislation or regulations pending before them.
An example is the California State Protocol Foundation, a nonprofit group that paid for Schwarzenegger’s four-day trip to Austria, France and Britain.
Aaron McLear, the governor’s press secretary, said having a nonprofit such as the foundation pay for the governor’s trips is “absolutely appropriate” because it saves money for taxpayers.
The state might lose some revenue from the arrangement because donations to the foundation and similar groups are tax exempt, but McLear said the economic benefits to California from Schwarzenegger’s travels exceed any revenue loss.
Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank that promotes political reform efforts, said the trips should be paid by taxpayers if they benefit the state.
At the very least, the trips give members of the sponsoring groups “extra access” to the officials who go along, Stern said.
“Some of these trips are very worthwhile,” Stern said. “My point is, if the trips are really worthwhile, the taxpayers should pay for them. The expenses would probably not be as lavish and probably would be examined more closely.”
California lawmakers are frequent fliers to destinations abroad, sending sizable delegations all over the world the past 12 months alone.
The latest round of overseas travel began last week, while the Assembly and Senate were supposed to be in the middle of a special legislative session called by Schwarzenegger on water policy and health care reform.
Twenty lawmakers left for what they say are official trips to China, Europe and South America. The lawmakers’ offices say the latest travel is not being funded by the same private, California-based groups that have paid for previous trips.
Rather, lawmakers are dipping into their own pockets or more likely using accounts filled with money from campaign contributors to pay at least their airfares, with foreign governments and a variety of overseas groups covering other costs.
Stern also objects to that approach if campaign donations are involved, saying they should only be used for trips that have a purely political purpose, such as attending a party convention.
The principle is the same, whether the money comes from nonprofits supported by deep-pocketed groups or campaign accounts: Businesses, special interest groups and individuals who want something from state government often are the ones providing the money.
“Private companies and organizations have no business sending politicians on luxury vacations, and if they are not vacations but legitimate policy trips, then taxpayers should be footing the bill,” said Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate for the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “It’s simply another way for private interests to gain access and curry favor with politicians.”
Former state Senate President Pro-Tem David Roberti said the public wouldn’t stand for officials using tax revenue to travel abroad.
“I think that’s what they do in Congress, and that is even more controversial far more controversial,” he said.
The Los Angeles Democrat was the lead author of the legislation that created the gift limit and the travel exemption after the bribery scandal, which led to prison sentences for four lawmakers, a former legislator and eight others.
The travel exemption was put into the bill to enable officials to get a “broader outlook, a less parochial outlook” at potential solutions to the state’s problems, Roberti said. “Sometimes we think we know everything in California, and we don’t,” he added.
Those behind the nonprofits that are funding some of the overseas trips dispute characterizations of the trips as luxury vacations or opportunities to give officials a particular point of view.
The Schwarzenegger trips funded by the California Protocol Foundation are too jammed with events for anyone who goes along to have much contact with the governor, said foundation president Allan Zaremberg, who also is president of the California Chamber of Commerce.
The Protocol Foundation‘s vice president is William Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable.
Besides the trip to Europe, the foundation has covered Schwarzenegger’s expenses and those of his aides on trade missions to Canada, China, Japan and Mexico. A predecessor group also funded trips taken by former Gov. Gray Davis, although he traveled less than Schwarzenegger, Zaremberg said.
Schwarzenegger was only accompanied by aides, security officers, his daughter Katherine and one of her friends on the trip to Europe, said McLear, his press secretary. But his delegations for each of the trade missions included dozens of business representatives.
“Frankly, I don’t know of opportunities for people to ‘lobby the governor,'” Zaremberg said. “I don’t think the opportunity exists on these trips. The schedule is packed full. That’s not the goal. The goal is to promote business opportunities with government officials and leaders in other countries.”
Former state Assemblyman Martin Gallegos, a lobbyist for the California Hospital Association, said there were chances to talk to Schwarzenegger when he accompanied the governor on the trade missions to China in 2005 and to Mexico in 2006.
The conversations usually focused on what had happened at meetings the delegation members attended. But they also made the governor familiar with the association and its interest in health care issues, said Gallegos, a Democrat.
He believes that helped get the association an advisory role when Schwarzenegger began drafting his health care plan this year.
“Being part of these delegations and getting him to know that we wanted to be involved and are very concerned about health care was something of value for us,” Gallegos said.
The Protocol Foundation raised more than $4.2 million from 2003 to 2006, according to annual reports it files with the Internal Revenue Service. Besides the trade missions, it has paid for several Capitol receptions, a luncheon for the consular corps and a barbecue for the news media “in appreciation of their hard work.”
It doesn’t disclose the sources of its funding, even to Schwarzenegger.
“It’s important to some of the donors because they want to be anonymous,” Zaremberg said.
But Stern said the foundation’s contributors and the names of the people who accompany the governor on the trips should be disclosed.
“I just don’t see why we can’t have transparency,” he said.
At the request of The Associated Press, the Schwarzenegger administration released the names of people who accompanied the governor on his trade missions.
The California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a nonprofit that has paid for about 30 overseas trips for legislators and other state officials since it was created in 1979, also does not release a list of donors.
The foundation’s president, Patrick Mason, said most of its budget of about $1 million a year comes from the corporations, labor unions and environmental groups that are represented on its board of directors, which is listed on the group’s Web site.
“We have a handful of people on our board who do not pay anything… but everyone else contributes,” Mason said. “It varies, but there’s not any one corporation that even contributes 4 percent of our total budget.”
Balber, with the Santa Monica-based consumer group, said a “handful of corporate people” set the agenda for the Foundation on the Environment and Economy’s trips. She cited e-mails in which Mason said AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and a Japanese telephone company were involved in planning the trip to Japan
that the foundation sponsored in April.
Members of the foundation have input about how to structure the trips and the roughly 100 conferences the foundation has put on, Mason said. But he said they are a diverse group with differing views about the energy, water, air quality, transportation and other “long-term, big picture, infrastructure issues” the foundation focuses on.
Corporations on the board can be on opposite sides of an issue, he added.
Tom Graff, a Foundation on the Environment and Economy board member and the regional director of Environmental Defense, said the agenda for a foundation-sponsored trip three or four years ago to study liquefied natural gas was a “bit skewed” against environmental groups.
“But I think since then they’ve done better,” he said. “There is a serious effort to balance the participation of interest groups.”
Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, a Sherman Oaks Democrat who took part in the foundation’s trip to Japan in April, described the travel as “very educational and very rigorous.”
“That’s why I go,” he said.
He resents descriptions of the trips as a chance for interest groups to butter up lawmakers.
“It was not about greasing the wheel; it was about spirited debate on broadband,” Levine said in describing the Japan trip.
But a trip sponsored by the foundation can look like a luxury vacation, at least on paper.
A two-week trip to Argentina, Brazil and Chile last November to study alternative-energy technologies included stays at five luxury hotels for the trip’s participants, who included Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, and Susan Kennedy, Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff.
Some of the participants also took along their spouses or partners, but the foundation didn’t pay their expenses, Mason said.
The trip cost the foundation $12,500 per official. Mixed into the schedule of meetings were some tourist stops a visit to Paraty, Brazil, a colonial city founded in 1667, and a boat tour of coastal islands.
Mason said the foundation uses high-end hotels for security reasons in certain countries, although its itineraries also include upscale hotels in more advanced countries. While in Tokyo in April, lawmakers traveling on the foundation’s dime stayed at a five-star Four Seasons.
“If we’re in a pretty safe community or city, we try to do the best we can in terms of not overpaying, but we want to be in a central location because that’s where our meetings are going to be,” Mason said. “If we’re in a Third World country, we’re going to stay in the best place we can possibly get because it can get very dangerous a few blocks away.”
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