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The Daily News of Los Angeles

Married state legislators Sharon and George Runner took part in a South American fact-finding trip in November they said Friday covered issues vital to the region, but one that a consumer group likened to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s political junkets.

The Lancaster Republicans — he’s a state senator whose district covers the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys; she’s in the Assembly representing this area — defended the trip, saying they learned about alternative fuels, greenhouse emissions, prison reform and California’s energy needs.

“I’m not apologetic at all,” George Runner said. “We accomplished a lot on that trip.”

The pair said the 12-day visit was geared toward state issues and was not a luxury vacation. The Runners were among several state officials who took the trip paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.

Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the tour included a considerable amount of free time and gave groups that lobby the Legislature and administration extensive access to public officials.

“This is Jack Abramoff’s golfing trips to Scotland, only with more bathing suits,” said Heller, noting that the foundation behind the trip recommended that travelers bring workout clothes, swim suits and comfortable walking or hiking shoes.

“The companies on the trip got days of uninterrupted lobbying and socializing with these public officials, who will certainly remember their all-expense-paid vacation to the Copacabana when the lobbyists demand special favors in Sacramento,” Heller said in a statement.

Abramoff, a once-powerful Washington lobbyist, is serving a nearly six-year prison term for a fraudulent Florida casino deal.

The trip included looking at how Brazil promotes the use of ethanol as an alternative fuel, a topic that came up in November’s election regarding Proposition 87, which would added an additional tax on gas. During the campaign, former President Bill Clinton touted Brazil’s use of ethanol.

A tax issue

“This is an issue people were asked to pay a tax on,” George Runner said. “If you have a former president telling us we ought to be like Brazil, then we should go and see what they are doing in Brazil.”

The trip also included discussions on the implementation of a new state law limiting greenhouse emissions in the state. Part of that discussion is the idea of swapping emission credits with developing nations.

“Those were the kinds of things we were doing,” George Runner said.

There also were side discussions among delegation members, including conversations with the California Energy Commission regarding a power plant proposed for Palmdale, discussions with a Public Utilities Commission representative regarding a plan by Edison to install a transmission line across the region and talks with the governor’s staff regarding prison reform.

Chance to talk

“It gave us an opportunity to talk, Republicans and Democrats, with industry and the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) and work out legislation that benefits everybody,” Sharon Runner said. “It was definitely a working trip. I’m much better informed.”

The Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights obtained itineries and other records about the South America trip through a California Public Records Act request.

“The average citizen will never be on an even playing field with powerful business interests that spend tens of thousands of dollars wining and dining and vacationing with government officials like this,” Heller said.

The organization paying for the trip represents a broad spectrum of interests, the Runners said, including industry, environmental groups and labor unions.

The foundation finances conferences and annual overseas trips for legislators and other state officials to look for ways to solve problems facing the state, said Patrick Mason, president of the foundation.

Participants included Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles; Susan Kennedy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s chief of staff; and representatives of the state Energy Commission and Public Utilities Commission.

In addition to the Runners, members of the Legislature that went on the trip
included Sens. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach; and Mike Machado, D-Linden; and Assembly members Rick Keene, R-Chico; John Laird, D-Santa Cruz; Lloyd Levine, D-Sherman Oaks; and Lori Saldana, D-San Diego.

The group stayed at five luxury hotels, including the Copacabana Palace, which bills itself as the “most luxurious hotel” in Rio de Janeiro, and the Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires.

Consumer Watchdog
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