Senator under FBI investigation traveled to Cuba with lobbyist
August 1, 2013 - By John Hrabe
State Senator Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, whose offices were raided by FBI agents in June, traveled to Cuba during the legislature’s spring break with Sacramento’s “best connected” lobbyist, state campaign finance disclosure reports have revealed. Calderon was one of eight state legislators that secretly traveled to Havana with Darius Anderson, the founder and president of the powerhouse lobbying firm Platinum Advisors.
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.
According to the most recent campaign finance report for his state Senate officeholder committee, Calderon spent $6,159 on the March trip, including more than $2,500 on an upgraded Virgin America flight. Within days of returning from Cuba, Pfizer, one of Anderson’s lobbying clients, contributed $1,500 to the same Calderon committee that paid for his trip expenses. In May, just days before Calderon’s offices were raided by the FBI, another Anderson client, AT&T, made a $1,600 contribution to the same Calderon committee.
Under the Calfiornia 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.
Since 2011, Calderon’s various campaign committees have collected $12,100 from Anderson’s past or current clients, including the American Council of Life Insurers California, Anthem Blue Cross, AT&T, Conoco Phillips, DirectTV, Dish Network, Pfizer and Phillips 66 Company.
Skinner on Cuba junket
Calderon wasn’t the only legislator to be identified through the most recent campaign disclosure reports. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, also joined the lobbyist-organized trip to Cuba during the Legislature’s spring break. She reported $2,400 in Cuba trip expenses, according to her most recent campaign finance report.
Skinner has accepted $12,900 in campaign contributions from Anderson’s clients since 2011. According to state campaign lobbying reports, Anderson’s firm is the lobbyist of record for AT&T, DirectTV, Entertainment Software Association, Pfizer, SKS Investments, LLC and the United Food and Commercial Workers, all of whom made campaign contributions to Skinner.
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,” Phillip Ung, a policy advocate for California Common Cause, told CalWatchdog.com earlier this year. “The simple, common sense fix to this problem is to limit campaign funds to campaign related spending.”
6 of 8 legislators identified
As of July 31, CalWatchdog.com has identified six of the eight-member legislative delegation to Cuba. Other attendees include: Achadjian, Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, D-San Diego; Assemblymember Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles; and State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston.
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.
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.