Central Valley

Free trips top gifts to Valley lawmakers

SACRAMENTO -- Central San Joaquin Valley state lawmakers last year collected more than $33,000 in gifts -- from pro sports tickets to overseas trips -- from corporations and interest groups, according to recent filings.

Assembly Member Nicole Parra had the biggest haul by far. The Hanford Democrat reported 65 gifts with a total value of $20,122. That includes $14,998 for a trip to South Africa underwritten by a nonprofit group that gets money from energy companies.

Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, was next with $4,375, including $3,485 for a trip to Taiwan sponsored by the country's ministry of foreign affairs.

The gifts and trip reimbursements are perfectly legal and detailed on annual filings made with the Fair Political Practices Commission.

But good government advocates say some of the gifts raise eyebrows.

"It's a real concern when you have fairly lavish gifts and other perks ... going to elected officials" particularly when givers have business with the state, said Derek Cressman, government watchdog director for California Common Cause.

Lawmakers must report gifts of more than $50 and cannot collect more than $390 in gifts a year from the same source.

Registered lobbyists are banned from giving more than $10 in gifts a month.

There are fewer limits on travel reimbursements. Nonprofits can spend unlimited amounts, as long as the travel expenses are "reasonably related" to legislative or governmental affairs.

The Valley's nine lawmakers got gifts and travel reimbursements from more than 60 corporations and interest groups in 2007, according to a Bee analysis of filings recently made public.

Parra's trip was paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit has a mission of bringing together business, scientific, political and labor leaders to "address complex economic and environmental issues."

Tax documents do not itemize contributors to the foundation, but ExxonMobil has been a major contributor, according to the oil company's filings. It gave the nonprofit more than $2.5 million since 2000, according to federal tax filings. The nonprofit got a total of $1.2 million in contributions in 2005, according to the most recently available tax filings.

Parra, who leads the Assembly's business-friendly "moderate Democrat" caucus, said the two-week trip was beneficial. She and other lawmakers studied climate change and public-private partnerships, said Parra, who in previous years has gone on similar trips to Europe and Japan.

On the South Africa trip, environmentalists outnumbered oil company executives, she said.

"Do we need to travel all over the world to see this stuff? Some would argue that we don't," she said. But "it doesn't cost taxpayers a dime" and "it's made me a better advocate."

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said travel can broaden a lawmaker's horizons. But "if the trip is worth taking, the taxpayers should pay for it," he said, not special interest groups. If taxpayers paid, "the meals wouldn't be as luxurious and the hotels wouldn't be as great," he said.

By paying for travel, groups like the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy get access to legislators that other constituents lack, Stern said.

Ashburn said his trip to Taiwan allowed him to discuss health-care issues with government officials and travel on the country's high-speed rail, which he said could serve as a model for a proposed California bullet train.

When Assembly Member Bill Maze, R-Visalia, made a trip to Hawaii for a legislative conference, he said he covered the cost with his own campaign funds. But a nonprofit called the Pacific Policy Research Foundation picked up his greens fees -- valued at $231 -- at the luxurious Wailea Golf Resort.

The foundation is "dedicated to the discussion of public policy and complex issues to the benefit of the states and the nation." Board directors include: Dan Howle, manager of public affairs for pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co.; Linda Ackerman, wife of state Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman and his principal fundraiser; and Sherry Leonard, wife of Bill Leonard, a Board of Equalization member.

Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, who leads a Senate committee with oversight over horse racing, got $581 in gifts from horse racing interests, including meals and racing tickets. Florez said he likes to take members of county fair boards to help them "understand the industry a little better." Fairs rely on horse racing for revenue.

Gifts to Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines of Clovis included $115 for tickets to a Sacramento Kings game, paid for by AT&T, $345 for tickets to Disney on Ice, picked up by Disney, and $162 for dinner in Washington, D.C., paid for by cigarette-maker Altria.

Villines said he sometimes lets companies pick up the tab in order to be polite.

"You just want to make sure you report it," he said.

Assembly Member Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, said he generally doesn't accept gifts.

"It's a real paperwork hassle," he said. And "I just prefer not to give the appearance that somehow gifts affect any of my decisions."

Of the $911 in gifts given to Arambula, $751 came from colleagues. Lawmakers can use their campaign funds to pay for such gifts.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez -- who once kicked Arambula out of his office for bucking the Democratic caucus on a vote -- gave Arambula $90 in wine and a $130 necktie for his birthday. "It's kind of hard to turn down the speaker's tie," he said.