LAME-DUCK LAWMAKER PARTIES, FUNDS WINERY JAUNT, JETS TO HAWAII
Assemblywoman Nicole Parra may have found the perfect antidote to life in the Assembly doghouse — travel to political bashes in Maui, Las Vegas, Chicago and New Orleans, courtesy of political donors.
The Hanford Democrat was banished months ago to an Assembly office outside the Capitol for failure to support her party’s budget plan, but when Parra is termed out Monday, she’ll have plenty of high-tab memories to keep her smiling.
Campaign disclosure statements show that Parra, a lame-duck lawmaker who did not seek election to another office, largely emptied her campaign coffers this year — in part by spending thousands of dollars on travel, meals, parties and conferences — including:
* A $1,367 bash at Ceja Vineyards at which Parra said she picked up the tab for four other lawmakers — and rented a car "so no one would have to drive drunk" — as a farewell and thank you to former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles.
* A $5,083 party at Sacramento’s Cabana Lounge for 100 supporters.
* A more intimate, $1,967 thank-you for 14 guests at Sacramento’s Hyatt Hotel; and a $226 tab for dinner with two guests at Ella in Sacramento.
Parra unpacked two weeks ago from Maui, where she attended an annual conference by the Pacific Policy Research Foundation, led largely by former or current legislators or their spouses. Participants mix beachfront fun with serious discussions on issues from budgeting to homeland security.
Parra traveled twice this year to Las Vegas for colleagues’ fundraisers or political events; to Chicago for a session of the New Democrat Network, a progressive think tank; to New Orleans for the National Conference of State Legislatures; and to Newport Beach and Del Mar for meetings with moderate Democratic colleagues, she said.
A planned trip to Washington, D.C., was canceled because of the state budget standoff.
Parra said she expects to be second-guessed, but that each expenditure was for a legitimate political purpose, each event was beneficial — and state funds were not used.
"People will question me — and I have the answers to defend myself," she said.
Parra spent more than $150,000 in campaign funds this year, including donations of $30,000 to WEAVE in Sacramento, $15,000 to the California Democratic Party, and $3,600 apiece to about a half-dozen legislative colleagues.
California law allows legislators to spend unlimited campaign sums for a political, legislative or governmental purpose.
Parra, who announced in February that she would not seek a Senate seat in 2010, said days ago that she potentially could seek a future Senate or congressional seat. Her travel helped her professionally and solidified ties with potential donors or supporters, she said.
But Ted Costa, of the political watchdog group People’s Advocate, said voters are suspicious when lawmakers fly to Hawaii to discuss California.
What the public imagines, Costa said, is "wine and music and dancing" and "it undermines what little confidence people still have in their elected officials."
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said lawmakers feel free to spend large sums from campaign coffers because they often face little competition for a seat.
"I think this shows that all too often, candidates think of their campaign committees as slush funds," said Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog, a political activist group.
Nunez sparked public criticism for his own spending of campaign funds in recent years, including purchases of $5,149 from a wine seller in France and $2,582 for two "office expenses" from Louis Vuitton.
About a half-dozen years ago, then-Assemblyman Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, spent nearly $30,000 for numerous trips to Las Vegas for political events.
"It clearly allows them to have a richer lifestyle than they normally would be used to," Stern said of campaign funds.
Parra’s travel, while not funded by taxpayers, comes in a year in which the Legislature faces a multi-billion imbalance between spending and income.
Parra said she travels to conferences alone and attends every possible panel discussion, does not order much room service, often spends her own money for taxis or miscellaneous items, and cuts travel expenses whenever she can.
"If you look at the conferences I’ve attended, they’ve been very strategic on my part," she said.
Contact the author, Jim Sanders, Bee Capitol Bureau, at (916) 326-5538 or [email protected].