Nonprofit Group Run By an Adviser Spends to Assist Senator’s Agenda
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata has solicited at least $200,000 this year from political interest groups for a nonprofit foundation that promotes and rallies support for one of his bills.
The arrangement, apparently legal, allows the Senate leader to solicit unlimited funds for his own political agenda without having to detail how the money is spent.
"He may have found a loophole in the Political Reform Act that needs to be closed," said attorney Bob Stern, a co-author of the state’s Political Reform Act who now runs the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.
"Here is money being spent to influence the Legislature, and we don’t know how much or how it’s being spent."
Numerous legislators solicit money for charities or community groups, a practice that has drawn scrutiny in the past because it allows special interests to curry favor with lawmakers.
Perata’s effort differs from most of the charity fundraising because the California Rebuilding Foundation receiving the cash was set up for political purposes and is promoting his legislation.
At Perata’s request, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association donated $100,000 recently; E&J Gallo Winery, $50,000; California Alliance for Jobs, $25,000; California School Employees Association, $10,000; and other interests, $15,000, state records show.
Perata is not required to disclose any solicitations of less than $5,000 to the foundation, which he helped form last year. The foundation is run by officials of Polka Consulting. Sandi Polka is Perata’s longtime political adviser.
Paul Hefner, a spokesman for Perata and for the foundation, said there is nothing amiss about the solicitations and that the Oakland Democrat, termed out in December, is acting in the public interest.
"We don’t do any lobbying," he said. "We strictly do public information and outreach. We don’t talk to legislators about bills. We don’t ask people for votes."
The foundation is not required to detail how the money was spent, but Hefner did so voluntarily when asked by The Bee.
Perata solicited the money to develop grassroots support for his courthouse construction bill from presiding judges, supervisors, sheriffs and district attorneys in more than 30 counties.
Perata’s Senate Bill 1407 would authorize up to $5 billion in courthouse construction or renovation to be financed by increasing court-related fees, ranging from filing documents to attending traffic-violator school.
Passage of SB 1407 requires a two-thirds majority of each legislative house. It narrowly passed the Senate but appears to face tough sledding among Assembly Republicans. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken no position.
A letter from Perata serves as the centerpiece of the foundation’s informational packet, which describes the deteriorating condition of courts and asks recipients to "join our effort."
The packet includes a postcard of support that recipients are asked to return to the foundation, which reports their names for inclusion on legislative analyses meant to be read by lawmakers weighing Perata’s bill.
The packet also offers a prewritten county resolution of support for SB 1407.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which opposes SB 1407, said the arrangement is "pushing the envelope way too far" in touting Perata’s legislation.
"The public’s inclination is to distrust politicians, and each time we find some new scheme for moving special-interest money around, that distrust is confirmed and deepened," said Doug Heller of Consumer Watchdog.
Stern characterized the net effect of the promotional campaign as lobbying, which would require quarterly disclosure of spending.
But Stern conceded that the outreach campaign might not meet the statutory definition of lobbying, which requires "direct communication" to influence votes.
Neither the foundation nor those who mail postcards ever contact lawmakers directly under the chain of events described by Hefner.
"If it’s not required to be disclosed, it should be," Stern said.
Perata also receives political dividends because the outreach campaign publicizes his fight to renovate courts, Stern said.
Last year, the foundation gave Perata even more explicit support after he solicited $555,000 from donors. Following voter passage of a package of bond measures he pushed, it put up billboards lauding Perata and other state officials.
Perata is the subject of a years-long FBI investigation into his business dealings and those of his family and close associates. Heller said the senator does his public image no favor by channeling large sums to a nonprofit group that does not detail who actually performs any work done.
Jim Earp, executive director of California Alliance for Jobs, said his group supported the foundation’s creation last year to keep the public informed about the spending of billions in bonds for transit, water, flood control and other projects. The group includes contractors and union workers who would benefit from public works projects.
Earp likes the courthouse construction proposal, too.
"I haven’t seen them do anything that we haven’t agreed with," he said.
State law prohibits lawmakers from accepting campaign donations above $3,600 per election. But they can solicit unlimited sums — called "behests" — for other charitable, legislative or governmental purposes.
Hefner noted that Perata does not control the foundation. Records show that two of its three officers are employees of Polka Consulting.
Hefner said the solicitation by Perata serves a clear public purpose, in contrast to some other politicians who have solicited special-interest donations for inauguration parties or promotional events.
Contact the author Jim Sanders, in the Bee Capitol Bureau at (916) 326-5538 or at [email protected]