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Sacramento Bee
Mar 04, 2008 - 01:00 AM

by Kevin Yamamura

FPPC Chairman Proposes Closing Travel Gift Loophole

Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) chairman Ross Johnson proposed a rule Monday to prevent elected officials from hiding lavish trips financed by companies and nonprofits by routing the money through their government employers.

Johnson's regulation would require state and local leaders to accept travel gifts directly and claim them annually on their gift statements, enabling the public to see who paid for all their trips.

Elected officials are allowed to accept unlimited travel gifts if related to a legislative or governmental purpose. Many leaders, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have used public agencies as the recipient without claiming the gifts on their personal disclosure records, making it more difficult to determine the extent of such contributions.

"We don't want to see these (agencies) used as a means of disguising or concealing gifts," said Johnson, a former longtime GOP state legislator. "We want gifts to be treated in such a way that it's clear when a personal benefit is conferred on an elected official or high-ranking official."

To pay for his trade missions, the Republican governor has relied heavily on the California State Protocol Foundation, a nonprofit organized by the California Chamber of Commerce. In December, he released documents describing the foundation's travel gifts to his office, though he has not disclosed them on his personal Statements of Economic Interest.

The documents -- kept internally and more difficult to access than SEIs -- show Schwarzenegger received Protocol Foundation gifts last year that included $214,487 to pay for round-trip airfare on his private jet from the United States to the United Kingdom and France and $108,000 to pay for airfare to Canada.

"The governor always has and will continue to abide by all FPPC regulations," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

He noted that the FPPC advised in 2004 that the Protocol Foundation could legally give unlimited travel gifts of a governmental purpose to the Governor's Office rather than to Schwarzenegger himself. That advice came only after the Protocol Foundation asked whether it could provide the gift in that manner.

"It's been a big loophole, and I think it's overdue that (the FPPC) has tackled this problem," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. "We've seen time and again where public officials have been receiving these gifts and using public bodies as the shields."

Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo has taken 25 official trips since October 2005 to events that include League of California Cities meetings, U.S. Conference of Mayors conferences, and a water summit in Paris -- paid for in a variety of ways.

Fargo has attended seven meetings for the League of California Cities in that period. For those trips, the mayor makes her own reservations and pays for the airfare, said Sue O'Brien, special assistant to the mayor. The mayor then fills out an expense form and the League sends a check covering the expenses to the city's accounting department, O'Brien said.

In some cases, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors events, the city pays all expenses. Information on how other trips were paid for was not immediately available, O'Brien said.

Under Johnson's proposed FPPC regulation, unelected public employees would also face new restrictions on travel gifts. They would be required to provide full disclosure of the source of the money and how it was spent, either to the FPPC or on a local government Web site. They also could not receive gifts that exceed spending limits that government officials must adhere to when using public money for travel.

Although the governor frequently stays in five-star hotels and provides posh accommodations for his aides, funded by the Protocol Foundation, the FPPC rule could force his staff to stay in hotels that meet the state's more modest spending limits. The rule also would crack down on cases such as one discovered by The Bee in which California Highway Patrol chiefs traveled to the European headquarters of Eurocopter and BMW in 2002.

"I don't think that some high-ranking bureaucrat in a state agency ought to be able to take a trip and wind up staying at a five-star hotel," Johnson said.

The FPPC will discuss his proposal March 13 and formally vote on the matter one or two months later, said spokesman Roman Porter.
About the writer: Call Kevin Yamamura, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5548. The Bee's Terri Hardy contributed to this report.

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