SAN DIEGO — Several San Diego County legislators received all-expenses-paid trips last year to Hawaii, Mexico, Israel and Italy — renewing calls from critics that state gift-giving rules should be tightened.
Disclosure reports show the treks, bundled with meetings and plant tours, were sponsored by nonprofits that receive contributions from influence peddlers with a stake in legislation and the budget, according to an investigation by UT San Diego (http://bit.ly/ApmvwP) published Sunday.
Representatives from the corporations, utilities, labor unions and environmental groups often joined the excursions, giving them access to lawmakers, the newspaper said.
State law limits the value of gifts. But travel, if funded by a nonprofit, can be accepted as long as lawmakers participate in a meaningful way — by giving a speech or sitting on a panel, for example.
California Common Cause, a government accountability group, says it’s a loophole that should be closed. The group has lobbied for tightening gift-giving rules and providing full disclosure of who is contributing how much to the nonprofit group listed as the trip’s sponsor.
"This is another way to get money into politics,” Phillip Ung, policy director of California Common Cause, told UT San Diego.
The newspaper cited 10 lawmakers who reported accepting trips in 2011. Among them was Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, who took a $5,866 trek to Israel to discuss homeland security and Iran. It was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles.
Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, went to the Fairmont Kea Lani resort in Maui for a week. The $2,415 junket was courtesy of the California Independent Voter Project, a San Diego nonprofit with funding from oil companies, utilities, pharmaceutical companies and a cigarette maker, according to the newspaper.
"The voters in California have said over and over again they wish the building would operate in a more bipartisan manner. That’s all based on relationships. Those relationships don’t happen overnight. They require trust,” Jones told UT San Diego in explaining why he went to the bipartisan gathering.
Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, took a $10,735 Italy trip paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and Economy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit made up of oil companies, utilities and environmental groups. The trip included plant tours and meetings on energy issues, from solar power to smart meters.
Block also went on a $3,883 trip to Israel sponsored by Faith2Green, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit made up of faith-based organizations interested in environmental issues.
"These are not special-interest groups,” Block said of his tour that focused on water saving technologies. "They don’t have a lot vested in legislation.”
Not all the trips had big budgets. Sen. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, reported accepting a $219 gift of lodging and meals from the California Independent Petroleum Association as part of a symposium.
Information from: U-T San Diego, http://www.utsandiego.com