Legislators live high in land of the freebie

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Sacramento Bee

Comedian Mel Brooks may have said it best.

In his 1981 movie, playing Louis XIV and mugging for the camera while enjoying his vast array of royal privileges, the erstwhile French monarch cracked, “It’s good to be king.”

It’s good to be a member of the California Legislature, too.

That’s if you like such gifts as pricey behind-the-bench tickets to Kings playoff games, gratis seats for the World Series, free admission to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl or paid trips to Italy, China, Australia, New Zealand or Germany.

Like their counterparts around the nation and predecessors here in Sacramento, members of the California Legislature are awash in freebies.

According to economic interest statements filed this week with the Fair Political Practices Commission, the Legislature’s 120 members reported accepting more than $178,000 in gifts last year.

They took golf outings. Cowboy hats. Expensive bottles of wine. Artwork. Skin-care products. An antique gun. Tool kits, parking passes, cigar humidors and even complimentary memberships to exclusive fitness centers.

A number of them also got free seats to hot-ticket concerts by Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones.

In many cases, the gifts came from companies and interests whose own personal businesses are directly affected by the men and women who pass laws inside the state Capitol.

The gifts were legal, usually within the prescribed limit of no more than $340 from a single source in one year. The limits don’t apply to travel related to state business, such as the $6,640.84 freebie provided to members such as Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who was flown to Europe for 10 days last March to study “transportation and sustainable growth.”

“We take up to 16 people, and they’re very powerful education tools,” said Patrick Mason, president of the San Francisco-based California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, the trip sponsor. His foundation also took a number of legislators to Australia and New Zealand to study transportation and related issues.

But the practice of legislators accepting gifts prompted one consumer activist to complain Wednesday that it cheapens the political process and only adds to the public’s low opinion of the people elected to represent them.

“These people should have a no-gift rule,” said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “It’s not your birthday. Pay your own way. No average Californian gets free Kings tickets. Elected officials shouldn’t either. People are totally turned off by this stuff. You earned the job, not the presents.”

Freebies don’t stop with state lawmakers.

Heller was at the Capitol on Wednesday to urge the Senate Rules Committee to block Michael Peevey’s appointment to the state Public Utilities Commission, in part because Peevey’s disclosure statement says he took $2,134 in free parking from San Francisco International Airport.

In an attachment filed by Peevey, who has served on the PUC for a year pending Senate confirmation, he said he knows he far exceeded the gift limit, which applies to all state elected officials, but did so because of extenuating circumstances. It won’t happen again, he said.

Peevey said he parked at San Francisco airport 14 times in 2002, eight times for state business and six times so he could travel from San Francisco to his home in Southern California to receive chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer.

While he acknowledged those occasions were “perhaps more personal than of a business nature,” he said he wouldn’t have been in San Francisco in the first place if not for his desire to participate in PUC actions. Although members of the committee questioned Peevey about the parking, they recommended Senate confirmation.

As for Heller’s idea of a no-gift rule, some members of the Legislature have, in fact, come up with one of their own.

Democratic Sens. Dean Florez of Shafter and Debra Bowen of Marina del Rey are among a handful who have signs posted on their office doors at the Capitol that tell visitors they don’t accept gifts.

Gift-giving can “cheapen the process,” Florez said. But he said the main reason he posts the no-gift signs is that he doesn’t want people in his district to feel obligated to give him something.

“It’s primarily a cultural issue in my district,” he said. “People feel they have to bring a gift if they come, and I just want them to feel comfortable coming to see their senator with no obligation.”

Bowen said she doesn’t think gifts are going to affect how a legislator votes. She just prefers to pay her own way.

“I’m just more comfortable buying my own lunch and my Michigan State tickets,” she said of her alma mater.

No gifts were reported on Bowen’s statement of economic interest filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission, but most lawmakers list columns of gifts on their disclosure forms.

The runaway gift champ for 2002 was Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, D-Culver City, who reported accepting presents that included a $100 Swiss army knife, compliments of the Los Angeles planning firm Brown/Meshul Inc., and a $50 bottle of tequila from the California State Firefighters.

Like a number of others, Wesson accepted tickets for basketball games, his coming from Southern California Edison and BP ARCO, sponsors of the Kings home arena.

Wesson also got tickets to last year’s baseball World Series from Pacific Telesis and SBC Pacific Bell. The total value of his sports tickets was $1,167.08.

“I totally disagree,” Wesson said of the suggestion there is anything untoward about legislators receiving gifts. The key, he suggested, is to disclose everything and let the public decide.

“If somebody gives me a frickin’ paper clip, I report it,” Wesson said, “because I don’t take any chances.”

Sen. Deborah Ortiz, a Sacramento Democrat, went to five Kings games without paying, and she agreed with Wesson.

Her tickets came from Maloof Sports and Entertainment, the team owners, ARCO and Health Net Inc., a large managed-care company. The total value of her tickets was $885.

“I’m not going to apologize for being a great fan of the Kings,” Ortiz said, “and having an opportunity as a legislator to enjoy games that I certainly couldn’t afford on my salary. I think that it is right the public asks the question and requires us to disclose it, and then the public can make the determination. I’m fairly comfortable that my constituents believe I’m not swayed by tickets.”


The Bee’s Gary Delsohn can be reached at (916) 326-5545 or [email protected]

Ed Fletcher and Alexa H. Bluth of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Consumer Watchdog
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