Senate Travel Perks for Sale?

*Contributors to lawmakers' charity, including lobbyists, are invited to go overseas with legislators.

By Patrick McGreevy and Nancy Vogel, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO -- - The California Senate offers special interests that give money to its charity the opportunity to travel with state lawmakers to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, Tokyo and other foreign locales.

The Senate uses its staff -- paid by taxpayers -- to help make travel plans for the contributors, some donors said. The donors are mostly corporate interests with business before the Legislature who get a federal tax deduction for their contributions.

Government ethics experts say the arrangement is inappropriate.

From 2004 through 2007, 12 of 18 foreign trips for lawmakers that were coordinated by the Senate included lobbyists or other representatives of companies that donated at least $2,000 each to the Senate's California International Relations Foundation, according to Senate records.

That charity pays for meals, gifts and other costs of entertaining foreign delegations that visit the state Capitol and helps fund an exchange of California and Japanese high school students.

Donors who gave $2,000 -- the amount was raised to $3,000 this year -- or more got a seat on the foundation's board of directors. The board's 23 directors, or alternates of their choosing, are invited to join the Senate delegations overseas, paying their own way, said Ezilda Samoville, director of the Senate Office of International Relations and the foundation.

The main benefit of having such a foundation board is that "we don't have to do any fundraisers," said Samoville, who added that the foundation received $52,260 in donations last year.

Carol Scott, a former member of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state ethics watchdog agency, said the Senate should not help lobbyists and other representatives of special interests join the state delegations.

Foreign trips are important to educate legislators, she said, "but they should not be an opportunity for informal lobbying by special interests."

Experts on nonprofit organizations say the Senate's foundation may not deserve its status as a 501(c)(3) organization, named for the tax code section that makes the entity exempt from federal taxes and permits contributors to claim a deduction. The Senate's foundation shares the status with organizations such as homeless shelters, the United Way and the American Red Cross and is not required to name its donors.

Gregory P. Schmidt, who runs daily operations as secretary of the Senate and also chairs the foundation board, said he had consulted with the Legislature's attorneys on the issue of whether the foundation's arrangements were legal.

Legislative Counsel Diane F. Boyer-Vine said the Senate's charity serves a legislative purpose because the trips are educational. But her office could not address questions about the tax-exempt status of the foundation. "We do legislative law," she said.

Frances R. Hill, a University of Miami law professor and expert on nonprofits, said the federal tax code forbids tax-exempt charities from bestowing "excess" benefits exclusively on board members. Such organizations are also bound by the "private inurement" doctrine that aims to ensure that a nonprofit's benefits are public, not private.

Hill said the structure of the Senate's international relations foundation essentially allows board members -- who get their position by donating -- to purchase access to California legislators on foreign trips. Average Californians and officials in industries that have not donated to the foundation have not been granted such access, Hill noted.

"You just can't sell a board membership like this," she said.

The foundation was created in 1991 after then-Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti, a Democrat from Los Angeles, found he had nothing to offer visiting foreign dignitaries but coffee in disposable cups.

"It was embarrassing, it was awkward and it certainly didn't look good for California," he said in a recent interview.

Most donors who contribute at least $2,000 have perennial business before the Legislature. They include the California Credit Union League, Union Bank of California, the California Bankers Assn., Chevron Corp., the California Healthcare Assn., the Recording Industry Assn. of America, Pfizer Inc., the California Tribal Business Alliance, Monsanto Co. and Altria Corp. Services, whose parent company owns cigarette maker Philip Morris.

The foundation has an advisory committee that includes seven senators and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, according to its website.

The foundation does not underwrite the foreign travel of California senators. That tab is paid mostly by foreign governments, foreign nonprofits or the politicians' personal or campaign funds.

The Russian city governments of Moscow and St. Petersburg, for example, spent a combined $17,775 on hotels, meals, transportation and "cultural activities" for five senators during a weeklong visit in 2006.

Typically, a foreign government or trade group contacts the Senate to invite lawmakers, Samoville said, and then she helps assemble a delegation.

The lobbyists and corporate officials who sit on the foundation board learn about the trips at board meetings, Samoville said.

"They are then invited to accompany delegations," she said.

Lobbyists must pay their own way when they join legislators overseas, Samoville said, and "they make their own arrangements and are free to choose their own flights and hotels."

But some corporate representatives who have accompanied lawmakers on such trips said the Senate has made some of their arrangements.

Ryan Brooks, vice president of government affairs for CBS Outdoor, a billboard company, said the Senate staff has booked his travel. He has flown to Russia, France, Argentina and Brazil in recent years with Senate delegations.

"The [Senate] travel office makes the arrangements," Brooks said. He said he provided his personal credit card numbers to Senate staff for his share of the costs.

George Steffes, a lobbyist for the engineering company Bechtel Corp., has joined several Senate trips. Senate staff usually books a block of hotel rooms, including his, he said. Steffes said he makes his own flight arrangements and pays all of his costs.

The travel is "a good opportunity to develop relationships with senators," Steffes said.

Samoville said she discourages corporate officials from picking up lawmakers' tabs overseas. But it happens.

Three senators and an assemblyman traveled to Japan last spring on a 10-day, Senate-arranged trip, according to Senate records. They were accompanied by Kevin J. Kinnaw, the top government affairs official in California for automaker Toyota and a board member of the international relations foundation.

Kinnaw paid the $1,256 tab for the legislators and their family members at a restaurant in Tokyo's pricey Ginza district, according to reports that companies must file about their lobbying expenditures.

The trip to Japan included Sens. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), Bob Margett (R-Arcadia), Jim Battin (R-La Quinta) and Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance).

At the time, Toyota was paying lobbyists thousands of dollars a month to lobby the Legislature on pending legislation, including opposition to an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would have required half of the vehicles sold in California by 2020 to be certified to run on clean, alternative fuel.

In the Senate, Scott voted yes, Margett voted in opposition and Battin did not vote. Lieu did not get an opportunity to vote on the bill.

Scott Keene, a Toyota lobbyist who has joined several Senate delegations to Japan, said he does not use the trips to lobby legislators. Still, he acknowledged that last spring he attended the briefing of California legislators at Toyota's world headquarters.

Sen. Scott said nothing he heard during the Toyota meeting influenced his subsequent votes on bills.

"I'm going to weigh what's in the best interest of my constituents from my district and the state and vote accordingly," Scott said.


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