A spring break fact-finding trip to Cuba by Republican Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian has drawn fire from an online news site that contends the trip was done in secret.
Achadjian disputes that, however, and said Monday that seven other legislators and some business leaders were in the delegation.
"It was not a personal trip with a lobbyist as it was described in other news outlets, nor was it done in secret," he said.
Citing an anonymous source, CalWatchdog.com said Achadjian, who represents San Luis Obispo County, "was one of two state legislators who secretly traveled with Sacramento's 'best connected’ lobbyist." The other legislator making the trip, CalWatchdog said, was state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Modesto.
The lobbyist in question was Darius Anderson. Disclosure reports list Anderson as the founder and president of Platinum Advisors, a firm that lobbies on behalf of 34 government organizations and corporations.
Thomas Lawson, Galgiani's deputy chief of staff, called the characterizations that the trip as inaccurate. He said that while Galgiani accepted the invitation to go on the trip, she paid for it out of her own personal funds, and no state funds were used whatsoever.
"She was invited go, she went with the group and that's kind of all we really have to say about it," Lawson said.
According to OpenSecrets.org and FollowTheMoney.org, some of the industries and political action committees that Platinum represents have been campaign contributors to Achadjian. Those include AT&T, whose PAC has donated $11,000 to Achadjian.
Citing "one capitol source” who asked for anonymity, CalWatchdog said the tour was a "super-secret trip" where participants "shredded their itineraries when they landed." The site is a project of the Journalism Center at the Pacific Research Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan public policy think tank based in San Francisco.
When contacted by email Monday and asked if he thought that traveling with a lobbyist may be a conflict of interest, Achadjian responded: “It depends on the circumstances. I certainly think that it would be inappropriate to take a personal trip with a lobbyist in which legislation related to the lobbyist’s clients was discussed. This was certainly not the case with the delegation trip to Cuba, which was organized by a nonprofit founded by a lobbyist, but unrelated to his business before the Legislature.
"Instead, the trip was entirely focused on the nonprofit’s efforts to improve relations between our two countries. It is also important to note that the delegation included seven other members of the Legislature, nonprofit staff, as well as other business leaders."
CalWatchdog contacted Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in campaign finance issues, who said that “It absolutely raises ethical questions when lobbyists travel with elected officials.”
Achadjian views the trip in a different light.
"I have long wondered about the impact of the U.S. embargo on Cuba," he wrote, "and whether a more pragmatic approach such as the U.S. policy towards China and Vietnam -- which have brought our countries closer together and created large markets for American goods — would be more effective in bringing about change.
"My interest in U.S. policy towards Cuba increased last September,” he added, "after the Arroyo Grande Chamber of Commerce led a business delegation there last year. While scheduling conflicts prevented me from participating in that trip, I was pleased that the Californian's Building Bridges trip worked with my schedule and allowed me to obtain firsthand knowledge of how the embargo impacts the lives of Cubans."
CalWatchdog noted that, “In order to comply with the State Department’s ban on travel to Cuba, the trip was arranged by Californians Building Bridges, a nonprofit organization controlled by Anderson."
According to CalWatchdog, Californians Building Bridges is a 501(c)3 whose “‘primary purpose is to assist other charitable organizations in expediting projects, setting priorities and achieving goals.’ Yet in 2011, it paid out $0 in domestic and foreign grants, according to the group’s tax return.”
Unlike most delegation trips, in which the sponsor provides the cost of travel, members participating in the Californians Building Bridges delegation trip to Cuba were required to cover their own expenses.
"I have always been adamantly opposed to communism," wrote Achadjian, "and this trip did nothing to change that view. That said, the trip left me with the belief that we need to find a way to express our disapproval towards the Cuban regime in a manner that does not impose such a hardship on the Cuban population."