The Associated Press
When Assemblyman Rod Wright cut short a committee hearing last August, he said lawmakers needed more time to study a complicated utility bailout plan before voting on it.
But Wright, chairman of the Assembly’s energy committee, didn’t spend that evening studying the bill.
Instead, consumer activists followed him to a Sacramento steakhouse and a $5,000-a-person fund-raising dinner for one of Wright’s campaign committees, an event that Wright advertised as one that would allow contributors to exploit a loophole in fund-raising limits voters approved last year.
The activists’ interest let Wright know they were watching what he was doing outside the Legislature as well as inside, said Carmen Balber, organizing director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
Wright’s fund-raising activities have received more scrutiny since he took over the special committee that considered legislation generated by this year’s energy crisis.
A Democrat from South Central Los Angeles, Wright is barred by term limits from seeking another Assembly term, and he isn’t running for the state Senate in 2002.
But an Associated Press analysis of his campaign accounts show Wright’s still pulling in donations from a wide range of interest groups that lobby at the Capitol, including tobacco and energy companies that some politicians shun.
Also, since the start of last year, when Wright’s either faced token opposition or had no upcoming race to run, he spent at least $51,000 for meals and travels, including a trip to Cuba and a stay at a posh hotel in Rome.
On a November 2000 trip to South Africa paid for by a foundation supported in part by energy companies, Wright used campaign funds to buy $7,085 in jewelry that he said was “campaign paraphernalia.” He declined to elaborate.
A number of the travel expenditures on Wright’s campaign finance reports have no destination listed and the meals are typically described as meetings or miscellaneous expenditures.
“If I put it on the campaign report I suspect that it was politically related or campaign related or government related,” Wright said. “If it wasn’t I wouldn’t put it on there.”
Campaign finance reports just have to list an expenditure under a general category, such as candidate travel, instead of providing a detailed explanation, said Sigrid Bathen, a spokeswoman for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
Besides his own campaign committees, Wright has close ties to two other fund-raising operations, the Black Leadership Political Action Committee and Californians in Action, which have raised funds from some of the same donors as Wright and funneled money to other Democratic candidates.
Wright hasn’t revealed how much the Aug. 28 dinner raised, but a check of campaign donation reports filed by some of his earlier contributors found five that gave him at least $5,000 in late August or in September.
His campaign treasurer, David Gould, says Wright isn’t required to disclose the donations until January because he isn’t planning to run for office next year.
But the secretary of state’s office and the Fair Political Practices Commission say a legislator must disclose donations of $5,000 or more within 10 days under a law that took effect Sept. 4, even if the lawmaker isn’t running for office at the moment. The Sempra and California Cable Television donations were made after Sept. 4.
“The FPPC explains that an officeholder is considered to be a candidate for office until they leave office,” said Alfie Charles, a spokesman for Secretary of State Bill Jones, California’s top elections official.
Sempra Energy gave Wright $10,000 this summer, said company spokesman Doug Kline, because “he’s still very involved in important legislation and we support him in that role.”
The other four donors – Pacific Bell, BP Amoco, the California Cable Television Association and the California Telephone Association – gave $5,000 each.
Wright, who represents an overwhelmingly Democratic district, says he takes money from “anyone who can legally give it” and sees no downside in accepting donations from interests that some politicians consider taboo.
“The more appropriate thing to me is to ask them why they don’t” accept the donations, he said.
Dermot Givens, a former Wright aide, said the assemblyman views the controversial donations as “kind of his ace in the hole in any competitive race that he would have, a pool of money no other black official would touch.”
His contributors since January 2000 have included the National Rifle Association, tobacco giants Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. and several electricity generators and utilities, including Southern California Edison, which gave Wright $22,000 last year.
While the Legislature sought a way to help Edison avoid bankruptcy, Wright offered a bill that he called a “straight bailout” of the utility. Edison, he said, was entitled to raise its rates to recoup some of its large losses.
But consumer advocates said the unsuccessful bill would have forced Edison‘s customers to pay management’s mistake of backing the state’s failed deregulation system. Also, Wright’s constituents wouldn’t have been affected by higher rates, because they get their power from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
Edison has also donated money to Californians in Action and the Black Leadership PAC.
The utility gave $5,000 last year to Californians in Action at Wright’s urging, according to Brian Bennett, the utility’s vice president for external affairs.
Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Sempra and Brown & Williamson were also among donors last year to the Black Leadership PAC, and Wright gave or loaned Californians in Action $78,000.
One of his aides, Cine Ivery, was paid a total of $41,000 for work done for the two committees.
And when campaign consultant Gale Kaufman wanted to send mailings last year to black voters urging them to oppose a school voucher initiative, she contacted Wright, knowing of his connections to Californians in Action.
“It seemed natural that they would be a good source of these mailings,” she said.
State law requires an officeholder to disclose if he or she controls a campaign committee.
But Wright said he doesn’t run the Black Leadership PAC or Californians in Action, and Gould, who is also treasurer for the two groups, is the only officer listed on their campaign finance reports.
Wright also said there was nothing improper about his use of campaign money for travel or meals.
State law generally bars the use of campaign funds for personal expenses, but candidates and officeholders can tap that money for travel if it’s “directly related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose.”
Wright said he went to Cuba last year “to learn about Cuba. It’s not your business,” he told a reporter who asked what he did on the trip. “I went to Cuba, did some work in Cuba. I had some interaction with the Cuban government.”
He said he “didn’t have a clue” what he was doing in Rome earlier this year when he spent $913 in campaign money at Le Grand Hotel, which one exclusive travel magazine said had been remodeled in an attempt to make it “the best in Europe.”
“I’m not sure what I did,” he said. “I’ve been to Europe a couple of times. I’ve spoken at international events.”