Fundraiser’s timing questioned;

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S.F. lawmaker holds event a day before panel he chairs will deal with billions in spending.

Sacramento Bee (California)

Assemblyman Mark Leno sparked ethical questions Wednesday by holding a $1,000-per-person fundraising event just one day before the committee he chairs decides the fate of more than 600 bills totaling $8 billion in spending.

“To be honest with you, it just doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Hector Barajas, California Republican Party spokesman.

Carmen Balber, of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the group is pushing legislation in Leno’s committee to slow health insurance rate hikes.

“You have to raise the question: Is health-insurer money that goes into that fundraiser going to influence whether or not that bill (survives)?” Balber asked.

Leno dismissed the controversy as much ado about nothing. The three-term San Francisco assemblyman, who plans to challenge fellow Democrat Carole Migden for her Senate seat next year, said Wednesday’s fundraiser will not influence actions he takes today.

“I would suggest my reputation speaks for itself — I don’t think anyone sees me as that kind of a legislator,” said Leno, who has co-authored legislation to replace the current system of political fundraising with publicly funded campaigns.

At Leno’s meet-and-greet, a handful of lobbyists and a small cadre of Democratic staffers sipped beverages and munched on cheese, crackers, grapes, chicken skewers, spinach snacks and pastry puffs in a small conference room of the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel.

Tickets were priced at $3,600 for “sponsors,” $2,000 for “friends,” and $1,000 for others.

Lobbyist Jack Gualco, president of the Gualco Group Inc., said he did not feel pressured to attend and was representing wine grape growers who had no bills before Leno’s committee.

“My experience with Mark is that he’s entirely above board, beyond reproach,” Gualco said.

Leno, as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, works closely with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez in determining which of more than 600 spending-related bills will die without an Assembly floor vote.

The panel, dominated by Democrats, will reveal its decisions today in a flurry of roll-call votes on its “suspense file,” which contains bills calling for new state spending of $150,000 or more.

Leno is not the first leader of the Appropriations Committee to spark complaints about ill-timed fundraising.

Migden, who held the Assembly post several years ago, was known to hold midday fundraisers on the very day that votes were cast. She did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Two Democrats who preceded Leno as leaders of the Assembly Appropriations Committee — current Board of Equalization member Judy Chu and state Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento — did not raise funds on the eve of tackling the committee’s suspense file.

“I felt it was not appropriate, for myself,” Chu said. “That was my personal policy.”

Sen. Tom Torlakson, an Antioch Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has not scheduled a similar campaign bash.

Tom Martinez, Torlakson’s spokesman, said the senator feels “this may not be the most appropriate time and, in addition, he’s just way too busy.”

Leno’s fundraiser was set by his 2008 Senate campaign committee, but he indicated that some or all of the money collected would be earmarked for Assembly Democratic coffers.

“Over the years that I’ve been in Sacramento, I’ve been one of the top fundraisers for the (Democratic) caucus — and I’ll be doing my best to continue,” Leno said.

He has contributed more than $500,000 to Democratic causes the past two years, records show.

Leno said that “99.5 percent of all suspense-file decisions” were made long before Wednesday’s fundraiser. He said he risks criticism no matter when he schedules a fundraiser.

“If I did it just after the suspense file, then the question is, ‘Why are you doing it just as bills are hitting the Assembly floor?’ ” Leno said.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there is no need for significant fundraising in this non-election year.

Leno might not be influenced by campaign contributions, but money is given by special interests who hope he will be, Stern said.

“People don’t make campaign contributions in a non-election year unless they basically are trying to influence a governmental decision,” he said.

Stern said Wednesday’s fundraiser “looks like it’s timed to ensure maximum turnout.”

But Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University, said the key issue is not the timing of Leno’s bash but whether money unduly influences politics and, if so, whether anything legally can be done about that.

Gerston said campaign contributions do not buy success.

“Money buys you access, it puts you at the head of the line, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get what you want,” he said.
The Bee’s Jim Sanders can be reached at (916) 326-5538 or [email protected]

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