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May 19, 2008 - 01:00 AM
New Rules Place Politicians' California Travel Under Scrutiny
State Ethics Board Increases Disclosure Required for Trips Paid for By Campaign DonorsSanta Monica, CA -- California politicians must explain travel paid for with campaign contributions to California spas, golf courses, wineries and other locales under new regulations approved by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) today.
Consumer Watchdog applauded the ethics board for extending new travel disclosure rules to trips within California, a move the organization urged in February. Members of the California legislature spent $395,000 of campaign funds for travel within the state between 2005 and mid-2007, according to an analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle. The Commission previously approved increased disclosure of gifts, meals, and out-of-state travel financed with campaign funds. The rules will be in place in time for the November general election.
"Public officials don't need five-star hotels, haute cuisine and $100 bottles of wine to effectively govern the state of California. The new rules will require politicians to justify how they spend their campaign cash and, hopefully, rein in the kind of extravagant spending that has become more and more routine," said Carmen Balber, political accountability director at Consumer Watchdog.
However, in a letter to the Commission, Consumer Watchdog cautioned that although the new rules are a great improvement, a lack of clear guidelines could sabotage their implementation. The board should require additional disclosures of trip participants and itineraries --similar to information required under new Congressional ethics rules -- so the public and the Commission can gauge the legitimacy of campaign-financed travel.
State law requires expenditures from candidates' campaign committees to have a legitimate political, legislative or governmental purpose, but few politicians currently explain how their spending meets that requirement. A review of campaign reports for members of the California Senate and Assembly reveal luxury campaign purchases with no apparent political purpose. A sample of recent unexplained spending includes spending at: resorts (Bacara Resort and Spa, $1950), vineyards (Beau Wine Tours, $550), gourmet restaurants (Spago, $2,100), and golf courses (Haggin Oaks Golf Course, $300).
"Ideally, campaign money should be limited to election uses, and travel with a legitimate governmental purpose should be paid for by the government. This would erase the perception of politicians' indebtedness to campaign contributors that fund a jet-set lifestyle. However, until the law is changed, more disclosure can be a strong deterrent to abuse," said Balber.
Read Consumer Watchdog's letters to the FPPC:
The Commission also enacted new limits on gifts of travel to state and local agencies that would prohibit such gifts to elected officials. Governor Schwarzenegger has benefited from millions of dollars given by a nonprofit organization to the governor's office that funded Schwarzenegger's private jet and lodging for overseas travel. Under the new regulations, such travel will have to be accepted personally by the governor and publicly reported on his statement of economic interests.
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Consumer Watchdog, formerly the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.
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