Legislators take secret trip to Cuba with Sacramento lobbyist

April 5, 2013

By John Hrabe and Katy Grimes

Ag Day 2013.thumbnail

At least two California state legislators secretly traveled with Sacramento’s “best connected” lobbyist to Cuba during the legislature’s spring break, an exclusive CalWatchdog.com investigation has revealed.

State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, and Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, confirmed through their offices that they spent the spring holiday in Cuba with lobbyist Darius Anderson.

The founder and president of the influential lobbying firm Platinum Advisors, Anderson and his firm agreed in 2010 to pay out half a million dollars to settle pay-to-play allegations.

Both legislators’ offices said the elected officials paid their own way on what one Capitol source described as a “super-secret trip.” The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that participants “shredded their itineraries when they landed.”

“He went on the annual trip to learn and study about Cuba,” said Craig Swaim, Achadjian’s chief of staff.

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“Sen. Galgiani did travel to Cuba on the Darius organized trip,” said Trent Hager, the senator’s chief of staff. “As opposed to other trips, the costs for this one are fully borne by the participants.”

Anderson did not respond to requests for comment regarding the trip.

Nonprofit: “Wholly-owned subsidiary of lobbying firm”

One ethics expert said that the trip raised multiple ethical questions, including why legislators were traveling with lobbyists, the true purpose of the nonprofit and why officials felt compelled to hide the trip from the public.  “It absolutely raises ethical questions when lobbyists travel with elected officials,” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law school professor who specializes in campaign finance issues. “We want elected officials to hear from all of us, not just those who are taking trips.”

In order to comply with the State Department’s ban on travel to Cuba, the trip was arranged by Californians Building Bridges, a shadowy non-profit organization controlled by Anderson.

In addition to Anderson, the nonprofit’s board of directors includes Holly Fraumeni and Melinda McClain, both of whom are registered lobbyists with Platinum Advisors. Only two other individuals serve on the board of directors, Kevin Murray, a former state senator and lobbyist, and James Bruner, the director of Orrick’s Governmental Affairs Practice Group in Sacramento.  The foundation shares the same phone number with Platinum Advisors.

The organization’s website was registered by Fraumeni in August 2010 and the provided contact information was for Platinum Advisors.

That information, Levinson believes, raises the question of whether “the nonprofit is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the lobbying firm.”

CA Building Bridges: “Renowned artists, fine arts museums & fabulous home restaurants”

In June 2012, the Sonoma News described a trip organized by the California Building Bridges Foundation, which served as a raffle prize for the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art:

 “’This really opens it up to the community,’ says Kate Eilertsen, museum director. ‘Imagine, a chance for two people to spend a week in Cuba, seeing renowned artists in their studios, visiting the Rum and Fine Arts Museum, and dining in the fabulous home restaurants – all for a $100 ticket.

“Travel plans also include a two-day side trip to 16th-century tiny Trinidad with its Valley of Seventy Sugar Mills and French-inspired Cienfuegos.”

A 2011 San Francisco Chronicle column by former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown described a similarly lavish trip. “Having spent a few days in Havana as a part of a Californians Building Bridges junket,” Brown wrote, “the trip was put together by Darius Anderson, who turns out to be very big in Cuban investments. So big, in fact, that the night he was missing from the group, he was dining with the president.”

However, federal charitable tax documents and the group’s website present a very different mission for the 501(c)3 organization. “The organization’s primary purpose is to assist other charitable organizations in expediting projects, setting priorities and achieving goals,” the group stated as its charitable mission on tax forms. “Californians Building Bridges will develop humanitarian programs that help volunteers and corporate partners alike make a useful connection to a world in need.”

In 2011, the only year for which the organization filed a tax return, it spent $94,586 on travel-related expenses of $136,476 in overall expenses. The organization’s mission also listed as a priority, making “one-time financial grants and donations of supplies and materials to charitable organizations that lack their own resources or do not qualify for assistance through existing agencies and organizations in their region.”

Yet, in 2011, it paid out $0 in domestic and foreign grants, according to the group’s tax return.  The organization’s tax return raises questions about whether the group is meeting its tax-exempt mission statement. Contributions to Anderson’s non-profit organization are tax deductible, according to an IRS database.

Conflicting history of group’s operations

According to his biography on the Platinum Advisors website, “Through Californians Building Bridges, Darius founded Project Havana, a humanitarian project dedicated to making a difference in the lives of the Cuban people through providing grants and donations of supplies to charitable organizations that lack their own resources. For the past 10 years, Darius and CBB have led over 50 missions to Cuba.”

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Yet, according to the organization’s website, it did not receive a license to legally operate in Cuba until 2011. “On March 29, 2011, Californians Building Bridges (CBB) was granted a license by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control, License # CT-16606, to travel and engage in transactions directly related to a new humanitarian project in Cuba,” the organization states under “Project Havana,” one of only four pages on its website. Guide Star, the independent organization that tracks nonprofit financial information, lists the organization’s founding and ruling year as 2012.

Only one tax return, filed on October 30, 2012, was publicly available.

Well-connected lobbyists

According to state disclosure reports, Anderson’s firm is the lobbyist of record for thirty-four government organizations and special interest groups, including Anthem Blue Cross, AT&T, California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, Clear Channel Communications, Station Casinos, LLC, Sutter Health, United Food and Commercial Workers, UPS, and the counties of Alameda, Napa, Orange and San Bernardino.

In 2009, Anderson was voted by state legislators as the “best connected lobbyist,” according to a survey of all 120 legislators conducted by Capitol Weekly. In 2010, Anderson and Platinum Advisors “paid $500,000 to settle claims by New York Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo stemming from a yearlong investigation into so-called pay-to-play practices in city and state pension fund investment partnerships,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Following the settlement, Dan Schnur, then chairman of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, appointed Anderson to serve on the Chairman’s Task Force on the Political Reform Act. The appointment was criticized by Common Cause.

The past three consecutive years, Anderson has ranked in Capitol Weekly’s Top 100, the list of the most influential people in state politics.

“Darius Anderson rose to prominence during former Gov. Gray Davis’ administration, handling fund-raising chores, then expanded his contacts and influence dramatically,” read Capitol Weekly’s 2012 profile, when Anderson ranked 76th on the list.

In November 2012, Anderson and former Democratic Rep. Doug Bosco were among a group of investors that purchased the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Cuba trip: One of three spring junkets

CalWatchdog.com contacted every member of the state Senate to confirm their whereabouts over the spring holiday.

Thirty-one offices confirmed that their bosses did not participate in any foreign travel over the holiday. Only the offices of four state Senators, Ron Calderon, Hannah-Beth Jackson, Curren Price, Jr. and Rod Wright, would not definitely confirm that their bosses did not participate in any trip to Cuba. Two state Senate seats are vacant.

State Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar were participating in a separate junket to Eastern Europe, which, according to the Los Angeles Times, was “sponsored by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, which is bankrolled by groups lobbying the Legislature, including PG&E, Chevron, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Southern California Edison, among others.”

CalWatchdog.com was unable to reach all members of the State Assembly.

15 comments

Write a comment
  1. Tom Tanton
    Tom Tanton 5 April, 2013, 08:35

    What good government knowledge would be gained by travel to Cuba?

    Reply this comment
  2. Bill - SanJose
    Bill - SanJose 5 April, 2013, 08:51

    Well, if you want to emulate the finest in communism and good food, I can’t think of a better place to go.

    Hang ”em.

    Reply this comment
  3. winston
    winston 5 April, 2013, 09:10

    Wow. Do Gagliani & Atchadjian know anything about ordinary Cubans’ lives in the Castro brothers’ gulag? Have they ever heard of Elian Gonzalez? Marco Rubio? If Anderson is in fact “very big in Cuban investments”, he’s despicable. Dining with dictators, nice.

    Reply this comment
  4. Hondo
    Hondo 5 April, 2013, 09:39

    If those legislators would just STAY THERE, and never return, I wouldn’t have a problem with this trip.
    Hondo

    Reply this comment
  5. Brown delta trout
    Brown delta trout 5 April, 2013, 10:04

    Monkey see, monkey do.

    Reply this comment
  6. Tax Target
    Tax Target 5 April, 2013, 10:58

    What would be expect from the politburo out of Sacramentzky? I’m surprised that Comrade Brown didn’t attend… it would have made the Central Committee proud!

    Reply this comment
  7. Leslie Halls, San Luis Obispo, CA
    Leslie Halls, San Luis Obispo, CA 5 April, 2013, 16:27

    Instead of spending the time at home with his constituents, who elected him and who pay his salary in taxes, Katcho Achadjian went to CUBA!? Are you kidding me!?!?!

    Reply this comment
  8. California bleeding
    California bleeding 5 April, 2013, 23:28

    Good work, Cal Watchdog.

    Note: Shred this email after you read it, like the politicians shredded their top-secret itinerary.

    Reply this comment
  9. fmmt47
    fmmt47 6 April, 2013, 11:42

    Probably a training session in how to turn California into a total communist state sooner than planned.

    Reply this comment
  10. mary morrongiello
    mary morrongiello 7 April, 2013, 21:13

    This is the reason the second amendment IS…so THE PEOPLE can resist the tyranny that this ILK are importing to a community near you via, corruption, regulation, taxation, ownership of what was once a free press, government schools that indoctrinate our youth with left wing Liberal lies and an ever growing dependancy class soon to include our newest citzens through amnesty. I’m not afraid to list my real name, WHY SO MANY CASPER MILK TOASTS? Let people know if you’re tired as hell and not going to take it anymore…

    Reply this comment
  11. Dan Pelissier
    Dan Pelissier 8 April, 2013, 13:34

    As a regular CalWatchDog.com reader and an occasional source for its articles, I am disappointed that the recent piece on the California Building Bridges cultural exchange trips to Cuba was so wide off its mark. I was on the December 2011 trip with Darius Anderson and Speaker Brown. There was nothing secret about our travels, there were no legislators in our group and we were enriched by a better understanding of the dramatic changes underway in Cuba’s political and economic institutions.

    It is hard to call an organization “secret” that maintains a public web page, invites people to learn more about its program and offers anyone the opportunity to join its cultural exchange trips. Members of the legislature who pay their own way to Cuba should be applauded for their intellectual curiosity. Their personal money could have been luxuriously spent in Hawaii.

    Of course the failure of communist ideology was the dominant international story of the last half century and Cuba is a living museum to the corrosive impact of military rule, a government controlled economy and lack of liberty. Sadly the Cuban people are still hobbled by their system of government, but recent economic and political changes provide hope that individual ownership, entrepreneurialism and personal freedoms are taking hold.

    While there was much to learn about Cuban history and governance on the trip, one of my favorite moments was getting a fine shave and haircut from a Cuban barber who had recently been given the right to own his shop. My wife Laura also demonstrated her new I-Phone to amazed neighbors while she waited. It was a wonderful personal experience for both of us and I cannot imagine a more meaningful cultural exchange. I tipped well, in US dollars.

    We also had the opportunity to meet with Carlos Varela, a Cuban musician who sang and played a wonderful acoustic guitar after dinner. His songs highlight the suffering of the Cuban people and their hopes for a better future. We bought his CDs and play them in our home.

    The lightly attended Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Old Town Havana was expected, though the teen jazz band and the chance to receive communion from a Cardinal were quite a treat. We were also pleased to support the Church’s much needed charitable work in a hostile environment.

    Darius Anderson is a strong California leader who includes a lifelong interest in Cuba as one of his many passions. Like all successful leaders, Darius identifies an important issue, develops a strategy to address it and dedicates resources to make sure it happens. Darius is not shy about trying to make a difference on a big stage.

    Shortly after our trip, Darius helped organize a day-long symposium at UC Berkeley, where he also teaches a popular political science class, on the challenges and opportunities Cuba faces as political and economic reforms gain momentum. Of course Darius does not need to do any of this Cuba or academic work to earn a living, as his interests in real estate, hospitality, publishing, sports, government relations and breeding tortoises keep him plenty busy.

    Perhaps CalWatchDog.com would have a more accurate perspective on Cuba and Darius Anderson if their reporters joined a well organized California Building Bridges cultural exchange trip. There is nothing “super-secret” about it. Indeed, more than 400,000 Americans visit Cuba each year. I would be happy to share my trip itinerary and the location of the Havana barber shop.

    Reply this comment
  12. Ralph Hutchinson
    Ralph Hutchinson 10 April, 2013, 17:13

    Darius Anderson’s junket with the Assemblymen was suprisingly close to the time Jay Z and Beyonce’ took their trip. Given Darius’ circles it wouldn’t suprise me if somehow they were related.

    Reply this comment
  13. Benjamin
    Benjamin 15 April, 2013, 19:16

    So I see that Darius Anderson is buying up all kinds of things in Sonoma county and surrounding areas. In the city of Sonoma in particular, he has an art exhibit going on in their museum, along with the artists, etc from Cuba, and the art is all his. Okay, what am I missing? This guy basically travels back and forth to Cuba, at least 55 times in the past 10 years and yet has only had a “license” for his “non-profit” for a year. This guy goes on one of these trips and has dinner with the President basically whenever he wants to. Does anyone hear any of this?

    Looks and sounds like Darius Anderson is on his way to buy the rest of the city of Sonoma. I have no intention on “visiting” Cuba as stated “more than 400,000 Americans visit Cuba each year” I’ll leave that up to all of the other “followers” of Darius … Anderson. I will have to agree, yes Darius is a leader, he’s leading all of his sheep right where he wants them and I will not be one of them.

    I haven’t even touched on the Government aspect of any of this. I just can’t believe this guy is and has been getting away with doing all of this. It’s as if Darius is thumbing his nose at America on the whole.

    Remember, “For the people, by the people” never forget.

    Reply this comment
  14. Sac Taxi
    Sac Taxi 24 August, 2013, 20:38

    Wow. Do Gagliani & Atchadjian know anything about ordinary Cubans’ lives in the Castro brothers’ gulag? Have they ever heard of Elian Gonzalez? Marco Rubio? If Anderson is in fact “very big in Cuban investments”, he’s despicable.Sac Taxi

    Reply this comment
  15. Rodney
    Rodney 1 July, 2014, 16:43

    Vending machines and breath anakyzers rank among the most populr turnkey business opportunities owing to thhe potential to
    generate cash round the cclock with the minimal oof effort and overhead.
    Internet gamhling attracts plyers for majy different reasons.
    needs thhe income, too, to avoiid other ways of taxing its citizens.

    Reply this comment

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