Did the health insurance industry, among others, have unfair influence on California lawmakers, after it gave family members gifts? That’s the question voters and the state Fair Political Practices Commission might be asking following an Associated Press report that revealed Golden State lawmakers failed to report gifts they received as required by state law.
Among the gifts: A California lawmaker and his wife were treated by a health insurance association to a two-night stay, with spa treatments, at an exclusive Pebble Beach resort. Another received free passes to Sea World San Diego, along with Disneyland tickets. Yet another got a coveted ticket to the 2008 Holiday Bowl college football game.
In its report, the Associated Press, which obtained documents under the California Public Records Act, found 38 current members of California’s Assembly and Senate did not report lobbyist-provided meals, concerts, sporting events and other perks totaling thousands of dollars. The records document gifts received in 2008, the last year for which such information is available.
Failure to disclose such gifts can bring fines of up to $5,000 for each violation.
The information is contained in enforcement letters sent to lawmakers last month by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which conducted a sweeping review of gift-giving by lobbyists. The agency unearthed the discrepancies by matching reports lobbyists must file against separate reports filed by lawmakers.
Nearly one of every three lawmakers at the Capitol, as well as 15 legislative staff members, were found to be in potential violation.
“I can confirm that we have opened investigations into possible failure to report gifts,” said Roman Porter, executive director of the commission. “At this time, we have not determined if there have been violations.”
Past and current legislative leaders who hold the most sway over bills moving through committees were among those who were notified, along with lawmakers seeking a run for statewide office later this year.
Rank-and-file California lawmakers make $95,143 a year in salary but can add as much as $30,000 annually in per diem payments.
The letters went to 24 of the 80 Assembly members and 14 of the 40 state senators.
Among the unreported gifts were meals at Ella’s, a high-end restaurant in Sacramento; tickets to Billy Joel, Keith Urban and George Strait concerts; a hard-to-get ticket to the 2008 Holiday Bowl between Oklahoma State and Oregon; a taping of ABC’s “The George Lopez Show;” and Sacramento Kings basketball games.
Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, the Democratic leader from Los Angeles, was notified that she failed to report meals paid by AT&T, Chevron Corp. and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians, which operates Pechanga Resort and Casino in Southern California.
Pechanga was among four Southern California tribes that won the right in 2008 to expand Indian gambling by adding 17,000 slot machines.
The current and incoming Republican minority leaders in the Senate also received letters from the commission.
Bass’s attorney, Stephen Kaufman, described the mistake as a “bookkeeping error” and said the speaker has amended her report.
Some lawmakers acknowledged making mistakes and said they have filed amended statements with the commission.
“We didn’t file it. It was our mistake,” said Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis, who served as Republican leader in the Assembly in 2008. “We resubmitted what we were supposed to file. … There’s no excuse for not doing the paperwork.”
Villines confirmed the letter saying he failed to report more than $250 for Sacramento Kings tickets, a parking pass and refreshments on Nov. 11, 2008, from AT&T. He also failed to report a $124 dinner paid by the Boeing Co. on May 20, 2008.
Others dispute the allegations.
Democratic state Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello appeared to have failed to report more than $2,300 worth of gifts for himself and his wife, Ana, including an October 2008 stay at Pebble Beach Resorts, known for its stunning oceanfront view and world-class golf course.
The Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies reported that Ana Calderon received $1,000 in food, drinks and spa treatments, and the commission questioned whether the senator should have disclosed the gifts.
Calderon is chairman of the Senate Banking, Finance and Insurance Committee, which oversees the industry.
“Since you and your wife received the gifts … on the same day at the same location, it appears you may have enjoyed a personal benefit from the gift,” according to the commission’s letter to Calderon.
Calderon’s chief of staff, Rocky Rushing, said the senator did not receive the commission’s letter, and that it’s unclear why the senator would have to report a gift his wife received. New reporting guidelines set to take effect next month will require California lawmakers to report gifts to spouses and children.
“We are currently investigating whether those allegations are correct and will be communicating with FPPC once we determine whether we were supposed to report or not,” Rushing said.
Republican Sen. George Runner of Lancaster received a letter saying he failed to report gifts for Keith Urban and George Strait concert tickets, also from Pechanga. The senator said he did not immediately report those gifts because he usually waits until he has been notified by the giver about the gift’s value.
“Apparently this came to light because the FPPC is matching the forms we file with forms that are required with whomever is giving the gift,” Runner said. “Obviously, we’ve changed our procedure now to where we are reporting regardless of whether we get (gift) letters.”
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