Two more legislators ID’d who went on lobbyist-organized Cuba junket
May 2, 2013 - By admin
By John Hrabe
Two more state legislators that participated in a spring break trip to Cuba with an influential Sacramento lobbyist have been identified. Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, and Assembly member Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, have confirmed through their offices that they spent the spring holiday out of the country with registered lobbyist Darius Anderson.
“I visited Cuba as a participant in a cultural and arts exchange trip organized by the non-profit, Californians Building Bridges, between March 22nd and 27th,” Mitchell wrote in an email to CalWatchdog.com. “My travel and lodgings were entirely paid for with private funds. I took the opportunity to observe instances of the country’s unique human services delivery systems, arts and culture.”
Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, another Cuba trip participant, told the San Luis Obispo Tribune that the trip included a tour of a castle, afternoon salsa lessons and rooftop cocktails, among other activities.
When asked to specify whether campaign funds were used to pay for the trip, Mitchell would only say that she followed all state laws. “My participation in a cultural exchange visit to Cuba was not paid for with taxpayer funds, and neither the law nor standards of ethical conduct were violated in connection with the trip,” Mitchell said.
A spokesman for Atkins, meanwhile, openly confirmed that the majority leader used campaign funds to pay for her trip expenses. “The Assembly member traveled to Cuba at her own expense during the Spring Recess,” said Dale Kelly Bankhead, Atkins’ deputy chief of staff. When asked to clarify whether that included personal or campaign funds, Bankhead simply replied, “Campaign funds.”
Campaign gift laundering
The practice of using campaign funds to pay for legislative junkets demonstrates the futility of the state’s antiquated gift restrictions. Under the CA Political Reform Act, legislators and their staff cannot accept gifts worth more than $10 per month from a registered lobbyist. However, campaign accounts provide legislators with an easy vehicle for circumventing these strict limits on lobbyist gifts. Lobbyists can direct their clients to donate to a member’s campaign account. Then, the member can use the campaign account to pay for personal expenses, including foreign travel.
It’s more paperwork, but for lobbyists interested in contributing to their chosen candidates, it’s worth the hassle.
In just the 2012 campaign cycle, Anderson’s clients made at least 17 contributions totaling $18,900 to Atkins’ campaign account. According to state disclosure reports, Anderson’s firm is the lobbyist of record for Anthem Blue Cross, AT&T, DirectTV, Dish Network, Entertainment Software Association, Pfizer and the United Food and Commercial Workers, all of whom made campaign contributions to Atkins. The largest contributor, AT&T, made $8,400 in combined campaign contributions to Atkins through its corporate account and affiliated employee political action committees.
The nearly $20,000 in campaign contributions from Anderson clients was then available for Atkins to use to fund her trip to Cuba, which was organized by Anderson’s nonprofit.
In 2011-12, Mitchell, who refused to disclose whether she used campaign funds to pay for the trip, accepted $8,200 in campaign contributions from Anderson clients Anthem Blue Cross, AT&T, Pfizer and the Personal Care Products Council.
In 2011-12, Achadjian accepted $14,900 in campaign contributions from Anderson clients Anthem Blue Cross, AT&T, DirectTV, Dish Network and UPS. He initially used campaign funds to pay for the trip, but has since reimbursed his campaign account with personal funds. Achadjian’s chief of staff, Craig Swaim, told the Tribune, “While no lobbying occurred on the trip, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, he has fully reimbursed his campaign using personal funds.”
Campaign funding criticized
Campaign watchdog groups have criticized the practice of using campaign funds for personal expenses, such as travel junkets.
“Unfortunately, paying for travel and other non-campaign expenses through campaign funds is a growing trend among public officials,” said Phillip Ung, a policy advocate for California Common Cause. “The simple, common sense fix to this problem is to limit campaign funds to campaign related spending.”
As of April 30, CalWatchdog.com has identified half of the eight-member legislative delegation to Cuba, which has been criticized by ethics experts for potential conflict of interest issues. An April CalWatchdog.com investigation first revealed that Achadjian and State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, participated in the spring break trip to Cuba.
In order to comply with the U.S. State Department’s ban on travel to Cuba, the trip was arranged by Californians Building Bridges, a non-profit organization controlled by Anderson. 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, it paid out $0 in domestic and foreign grants, according to the group’s tax return.
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, according to the Los Angeles Times.