Politicians living large under fire

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Sacramento Bee (California)

When California State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez launched their drive to change legislative term limits and thus extend their reigns in the Capitol, they made themselves and their conduct legitimate subjects for media scrutiny. So far they aren’t faring very well.

Perata already had a somewhat tarnished image from a years-long federal investigation into his actions as an Alameda County supervisor and state legislator, which appeared to favor certain interests and his personal financial dealings with those interests. Then last May, the East Bay Express, a local newspaper, published a lengthy series of articles about his finances, including details of how his campaign funds were spent on what the newspaper called a “lavish lifestyle” that included hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on high-dollar meals, liquor, hotels and other merchandise and services.

“An intensive analysis of campaign finance records… shows that California’s most powerful Democratic politician has a long history of living large on money raised for his various campaigns,” the newspaper said in its article by Robert Gammon, adding that over the previous decade he had spent “more than $1 million on parties and high-end lifestyle expenditures.”

Last Friday, Núñez’s hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, weighed in with a remarkably similar account of how he, too, has been living large on his campaign funds.

“As leader of the California Assembly, Speaker Fabian Núñez has traveled the world in luxury, paying with campaign funds for visits to some of the finest hotels and restaurants and for purchases at high-end retailers such as Louis Vuitton in Paris,” Times reporter Nancy Vogel wrote, adding that “the Los Angeles Democrat refuses to provide details on tens of thousands of dollars in such expenditures.”

Perata has remained largely mum about his “campaign” spending. Núñez attempted to defend himself to Vogel and in the process inserted his well-shod foot into his well-fed mouth.

He claimed that his foreign travels widen his perspective about legislative issues, adding, “This is a big state to run. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.” But he really blew it by asserting to Vogel that “There’s not too big a difference between how I live and how most middle-class people live.”

That was a red flag for Times columnist Steve Lopez, who on Sunday described Vogel’s article as “jaw-dropping” and described Núñez’s claim of middle-class living as “the quote of the year.”

Neither Lopez nor Vogel, however, picked up on another conspicuous example of high living by Núñez, who represents one of the state’s poorest inner-city districts — the $1.25 million home he purchased in an upscale Sacramento suburb which, property records indicate, must cost about $100,000 a year in mortgage payments and taxes.

After Vogel’s article appeared, Núñez made a public appearance in Los Angeles but fled via a back corridor when reporters tried to question him about his lifestyle, with a bodyguard blocking questioners. A very embarrassing video clip of Núñez’s flight was posted Monday on YouTube, including sharp criticism from Jamie Court, a consumer activist who opposes the health care plan that Núñez and Perata are promoting, saying it’s too generous to insurance companies.

If Court and others on their left love the legislative leaders’ discomfiture, so do those on their right who oppose their measure to ease up on term limits. The Times story, the YouTube clip and other material are perfect campaign fodder for the California Term Limits Defense Fund, which had already filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission about Perata’s spending and says it will file another about Núñez.

Reach Dan Walters at [email protected].

Consumer Watchdog
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