California GOP asks state to investigate furniture buy for lieutenant governor’s office

California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis holds a rose she was given after her swearing in ceremony at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 in Sacramento.
California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis holds a rose she was given after her swearing in ceremony at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 in Sacramento.

The state Republican Party is asking the Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis’ office, arguing she improperly used charitable donations to buy office furniture and paint.

Kounalakis, a Democrat, has raised more than $300,000 for the Committee to Support the Office of the Lt. Governor, mostly from labor unions. She reported the contributions as behested payments, a term that refers to donations elected officials solicit for charitable organizations.

California politicians tend to use behested payments to raise money for their favorite charities. Former Gov. Jerry Brown, for instance, while in office reported millions of dollars in behested payments that supported the Oakland charter schools he founded.

Money raised through behested payments also can fund events that appear political in some cases. Politicians use them to pay for inauguration festivities, and to fund foreign travel.

The Committee to Support the Office of the Lt. Governor paid for Kounalakis’ inauguration and bought new furniture and paint for her Capitol office. The arrangement saves taxpayers money, said Lloyd Levine, who runs the committee.

A complaint filed Tuesday by the California GOP alleges the payments should have been filed as donations to an officeholder committee or reported as gifts to Kounalakis.

California Republican Party director Cynthia Bryant said she’s never heard of an official using those contribution to refurbish a government office.

“The FPPC needs to investigate this,” Bryant said. “They need to see whether it’s benefiting her personally.”

FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said the agency received the complaint but hasn’t yet determined whether it merits an investigation.

California law provides an avenue for elected officials to raise money for expenses like furniture through officeholder committees, Bryant said.

“There are provisions for that. They don’t need to raise it through a charity,” she said. “It’s just a blatant runaround of the Political Reform Act.”

Unlike behested payments, gifts and officeholder committee donations are subject to contribution limits. Most of the behested payments reported to the committee exceeded the annual limits for individual gifts and officeholder contributions, which are $500 and $6,000 for a lieutenant governor, respectively.

The biggest behested payment reported to the lieutenant governor committee was $50,000 from AKT Investments, a business run by Kounalakis’ family.

Gifts and officeholder account donations are also subject to lower reporting thresholds than behested payments, which officials only need to report if they exceed $5,000.

Kounalakis’ office did not respond to a request for comment about the complaint. Levine told The Sacramento Bee last week he was confident the committee followed the law in reporting the behested payments.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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