July 31, 2013

Cupid's work gets complicated as California lawmaker dates lobbyist

Finding love is rarely easy, what with the awkward dates, gossiping friends and jealous exes.

Finding love is rarely easy, what with the awkward dates, gossiping friends and jealous exes.

But Cupid's work is even more complicated when a lawmaker and a lobbyist fall in love. Think legal opinions, questions from the media and advice from government transparency advocates.

That's the case for Brian Maienschein, a freshman assemblyman who sits on the health and business committees. The San Diego Republican is dating Carolyn Ginno, a lobbyist for the California Medical Association, which routinely has bills before his committees.

Both are single. They were not involved when Maienschein was elected in November and met when he began working in Sacramento earlier this year. As the relationship blossomed, Maienschein said, he checked with the Legislature's lawyers.

"And everything is appropriate," he said. "So to me, it's a non-issue and a non-story."

Workplace flirtations are, of course, not uncommon, and romance around the California Capitol is nothing new. But it's been decades since a lawmaker and a lobbyist dated openly.

Maienschein, 44, and Ginno, 33, have been seen together in Sacramento restaurants. He said he holds her hand in public and was happy to bring her along on his hometown Independence Day parades.

Ginno declined to be interviewed for this story. A representative for her employer said Ginno does not lobby Maienschein and the relationship presents no ethical problems.

"We did vet this issue with legal counsel to make sure everybody was complying with conflict laws, and everything checked out," said Molly Weedn, a spokeswoman for the California Medical Association.

The association is a force in Capitol politics. It gave $1.7 million in campaign contributions last year, including $5,900 to Maienschein.

This year, it has given him $4,100. Ginno is one of eight in-house lobbyists for the group who work on dozens of bills on behalf of the state's doctors.

While the romance between Maienschein and Ginno is legal, it has raised concerns among some good government groups.

"We are talking about a relationship where one person's job is to try to influence people in the other person's position: a lobbyist representing a certain constituency over which this lawmaker has some decision-making power," said Jessica Levinson, an expert in political ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

"The concern is always the same – is this elected official doing a good job? Is he serving the public? Or is there any chance the elected official is serving himself and making decisions based on who he is dating?"

A review of legislation the California Medical Association is lobbying this year shows Maienschein frequently – but not always – votes its way.

He has voted in favor of bills the group sponsored, including legislation to fund a new medical school at UC Riverside, renew a loan repayment program for medical students, and eliminate cuts to the rates doctors are paid through Medi-Cal.

In an April hearing on that last bill, AB 900, Maienschein and Ginno both addressed the health committee, making similar arguments about the need to better compensate health care providers who treat Medi-Cal patients.

On other issues, however, Maienschein has voted against the medical association, especially on issues dear to Republicans. He voted against a bill it co-sponsored to levy a fee on hospitals to fund more medical residencies. He voted against a bill it supported to allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform abortions. And he voted against a bill it backed that would have imposed financial penalties on large businesses whose employees receive Medi-Cal benefits for the poor.

Maienschein will have more medical issues to vote on when the Assembly returns from its summer recess next week. Some hot-button issues coming up include measures to expand the scope of practice for optometrists and other non-doctors, and a possible fight over the cap on medical-malpractice payouts.

Maienschein said he doesn't give the medical association special consideration just because his girlfriend works there.

"They're one of countless groups of interests that operate in Sacramento," he said. "There are groups always asking for things and urging you to vote 'yes' or 'no' on something. That's just the way it works."

State law says lobbyists may not personally give officials anything worth more than $10 a month.

But exceptions exist, and one of them is for "bona fide dating relationships." That means Maienschein does not have to report meals, gifts or trips Ginno might pay for them to enjoy.

In the 1980s, a legislator named Dan Boatwright said his affair with a 3M lobbyist was a bona fide dating relationship, allowing him not to report trips the pair took to resorts while he was carrying a bill to benefit her company.

And in 1985, then Assemblywoman Jean Moorhead married lobbyist Gordon Duffy. A front page story in The Sacramento Bee at the time said the two were keeping their finances separate to avoid the appearance that his income could influence her votes.

Phillip Ung, an advocate with California Common Cause, said the state hasn't set enough rules governing relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers – even when they're married – and pointed to the U.S. Congress as a better model.

"The federal regulations do not allow spouses who are lobbyists to make contact with that official's staff," Ung said. "We have no such regulation here."

Levinson and other government watchdogs said Maienschein should step down from committees that routinely vote on bills the medical association lobbies, such as the health and business panels.

"I don't think we can say, 'Drop out of office, or stop dating this person,' but I think we can suggest, 'There may be a more appropriate committee for you to sit on,' " Levinson said.

Maienschein said there is no need for him to step down from the committees or recuse himself from votes on CMA bills.

Ginno is leaving the association this fall, he said, to go to law school in San Diego.

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.

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