7th legislator on Cuba junket identified
September 12, 2013 - By John Hrabe
A seventh state lawmaker that participated in a spring break trip to Cuba has been identified. The office of Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, confirmed to CalWatchdog.com that the freshman legislator spent the spring break holiday in Cuba.
“Please be informed that Assembly Member Shirley Weber traveled to Cuba on vacation at her own expense,” Lisa Martin, Weber’s chief of staff, wrote in an email to CalWatchdog.com after multiple requests for comment.
However, Weber’s office refused to acknowledge that the trip to Cuba was in conjunction with the eight-member legislative delegation organized by Darius Anderson, the founder and president of the powerhouse lobbying firm Platinum Advisors. Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, the only legislator to speak publicly about the Cuba trip, told the San Luis Obispo Tribune that the trip included a tour of a castle, afternoon salsa lessons and rooftop cocktails, among other activities.
In refusing to acknowledge that she spent spring break cozying up to “Sacramento’s best-connected lobbyist,” Weber may have opened herself up to problems with the federal government. After all, Americans are banned from “traveling to Cuba on vacation,” as Weber claims.
Treasury Department bans American tourism in cuba
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control regulates all American travel to the Caribbean nation through the issuance of travel licenses, which are limited to 12 categories.
“OFAC does not authorize transactions related to activities that are primarily tourist-oriented, including self-directed educational activities that are intended only for personal enrichment,” according to the Comprehensive Guidelines for License Applications to Engage in Travel-Related Transactions Involving in Cuba, published by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
That could present some problems for Weber — unless she traveled in conjunction with the lobbyist-organized trip.
In order to comply with the U.S. State Department’s ban on travel to Cuba, Anderson arranged the trip through the nonprofit organization Californians Building Bridges. In 2011, the only year for which the organization filed a tax return, it spent $94,586, a majority of its revenue, on travel-related 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’s clients donated to Weber’s campaign
In the past 18 months, Weber’s campaign committees have collected $11,900 from Anderson’s past or current clients, including AT&T, DirectTV, Phillips 66 and the United Food and Commercial Workers. In 2010, Anderson and his firm agreed to pay out half a million dollars to settle pay-to-play allegations, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Campaign watchdog groups have criticized the practice of spending extended time with lobbyists, such as on travel junkets.
“It absolutely raises ethical questions when lobbyists travel with elected officials,” Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in ethics, told CalWatchdog.com in April. “We want elected officials to hear from all of us, not just those who are taking trips.”
Levinson repeated those comments in August, when the Los Angeles Times reported on the trip.
7 of 8 legislators identified
Last month, with the release of semi-annual campaign reports, CalWatchdog.com first reported that state Senator Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, whose offices were raided by FBI agents in June, traveled to Cuba, along with Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley
Under the California Political Reform Act, legislators and their staffs 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.
As of Sept. 11, CalWatchdog.com has identified seven of the eight-member legislative delegation to Cuba. Other attendees include: Achadjian, Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, D-San Diego; Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles; Skinner; and State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston.