FPPC shuns investigation of CA legislators’ Cuba trip

Havana post cardApril 9, 2013

By John Hrabe and Katy Grimes

After Friday’s report on CalWatchdog.com that at least two state legislators traveled to Cuba with a powerful Sacramento lobbyist, you’d think the state’s political watchdog might be launching a formal investigation. After all, the trip was hosted by the same lobbyist that reached a $500,000 settlement in 2010 with then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo over allegations of pay-to-play practices in that state.

Lawmakers haven’t answered any questions, and won’t face any scrutiny from the state’s ethics watchdog, because they claim to have paid for their own expenses.

“We are not investigating the Cuba trip,” confirmed Gary Winuk, chief of the Enforcement Division at the Fair Political Practices Commission. “If someone violated the current laws and regulations, then we will pursue it.”

The FPPC’s failure to investigate the matter rests on legislators’ claim to have paid their own trip expenses. It’s perfectly legal for lobbyists to escort legislators on foreign junkets, away from any public scrutiny, or the ability to independently verify legislators’ claims.

New details

To date, it still isn’t clear which legislators were in Cuba, their purpose of traveling to a foreign country with a lobbyist, or why they’ve refused to release any information about the trip itinerary, which they claim wasn’t a secret. Only State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, and Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, have been willing to confirm to CalWatchdog.com that they spent the spring holiday in Cuba with lobbyist Darius Anderson, the president and founder of Platinum Advisors.

The state’s ethics commission might not be asking any questions, but new details are slowly emerging about the trip thanks to local media reports. The San Luis Obispo Tribune, in a follow up to CalWatchdog.com’s piece, confirmed that there were eight state lawmakers on the Cuba trip.

“It is also important to note that the delegation included seven other members of the Legislature, nonprofit staff, as well as other business leaders,” Achadjian told his hometown paper in defense of his trip to a foreign country with a registered lobbyist. “It was not a personal trip with a lobbyist as it was described in other news outlets, nor was it done in secret.”

That raises the question: if the trip wasn’t a secret, why do the identities of six legislators remain a mystery?

Cigar - Fidel CastroNot talking to CalWatchdog.com

A spokesman for Galgiani said the government office doesn’t have any information on the Cuba trip and that the senator isn’t willing to comment.

Achadjian’s office was even less forthcoming with us, only telling CalWatchdog.com to read other media reports. “Earlier today the assemblyman was happy to answer a series of questions regarding his participation in the delegation trip to Cuba,” said Craig Swaim, chief of staff to Achadjian. “You are free to use that as a reference for your reporting.”

He added: “As for [who] else participated in the delegation trip, you may wish to contact Californians Building Bridges or member offices directly, as I only speak on behalf of Assemblyman Achadjian and not for other members of the Legislature.”

Achadjian’s staff was referring to the Tribune’s report, which included Achadjian’s declaration that the trip wasn’t a secret.

It isn’t clear whether the legislators used campaign or personal funds to pay for trip expenses. Under state law, it wouldn’t make a difference.

Influence

One campaign watchdog group believes that lobbyists and legislators shouldn’t be traveling together, regardless of who pays the bill because it gives lobbyists more influence than average citizens.

“We are in an era where powerful lobbyists have more access to public officials than constituents. Look no further than these trips as proof,” said Phillip Ung, a policy advocate for California Common Cause, a non-profit, non-partisan citizens’ lobby organization. “These junkets must either end or voters should know who is on the trip and what is being discussed regardless of who pays for it.”

Ung said that California’s weak ethics regulations don’t meet the federal government’s disclosure requirements for members of Congress that engage in foreign travel.

“Congress banned travel junkets with lobbyists years ago and now requires strict disclosure before a privately funded trip can even take place,” Ung said.

Campaign funds

“From trips across the ocean, gifts to staff, and even cars, many elected officials feel there is no real restriction for what they can spend their campaign funds on,” said Ung. “Under current law this is legal because of the vague definitions that allow campaign funds to be spent on almost anything under the sun.”

Not everyone in Sacramento is critical of the lobbyist-legislator foreign travel issue. Dan Pellissier, the president of California Pension Reform, defended the trip to Cuba based on his own experiences on a similar trip organized by Anderson’s nonprofit, Californians Building Bridges.

“I do not know what happened on other CBB trips, but ours was an outstanding experience without a hint of secrecy or impropriety,” Pellissier told CalWatchdog.com.  “It was a wonderful personal experience for both of us and I cannot imagine a more meaningful cultural exchange. I tipped well, in U.S. dollars.” Pellissier also wrote similar comments after the first CalWatchdog.com article on the trip.

All of this means that entertainers Beyonce and Jay-Z, who also recently traveled to Cuba, have faced more scrutiny than state lawmakers traveling to the same place with the state’s “best-connected” lobbyist. Two members of the U.S. Congress from Florida, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, have demanded answers from the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control Department of Treasury about the superstars’ trip. No word yet on whether the Florida members of Congress will demand a similar investigation into Achadjian and Galgiani.

CalWatchdog.com is currently contacting every member of the State Assembly to confirm their whereabouts over the spring holiday.

7 comments

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  1. Kudos to Hrabe, Grimes, and www.CalWatchdog.com
    Kudos to Hrabe, Grimes, and www.CalWatchdog.com 9 April, 2013, 09:52

    Thank you to John Hrabe, Katy Grimes, and CalWatchdog for daring to offend the state’s political establishment by exposing this trip to Cuba with a big shot lobbyist.

    That’s right, you’ll probably get no traction on this story, and people at and around the capitol will hate you.

    If I were a California state legislator, I would accept the trip and bring a suitcase full of pocket US Constitutions to hand out to all those wonderful people in Cuba.

    I guess that’s why I’ll never be a California state legislator!

    Reply this comment
  2. Hondo
    Hondo 9 April, 2013, 11:00

    Like I said before, as long as the whole lot of them STAY THERE, and never come back, I would have no problem with the govt paying for the trip. Hell, I’ll chip in for those one way plane tickets.
    Hondo…

    Reply this comment
  3. us citizen
    us citizen 9 April, 2013, 12:31

    Since no one seems to want to fess up to anything, there must be something fishy going on, otherwise why the defensive posturing?

    Reply this comment
  4. Bill - San Jose
    Bill - San Jose 10 April, 2013, 07:52

    One more reason why we need to ask all persons to leave the capitol building and board it up or burn it down.

    The corruption in that hayseed town rivals NYC with less oversight by the same press that wants to pursue funding groups outside the state for propositions here as long as they are conservative in nature.

    Reply this comment
  5. Travel choices
    Travel choices 10 April, 2013, 10:34

    Why don’t state legislators want to travel to Mexico and Canada, California’s two biggest trading partners?

    Reply this comment
  6. Ralph Hutchinson
    Ralph Hutchinson 10 April, 2013, 17:03

    Thank you for your investigative reporting.

    Remember Darius has Gov Brown and lots of these Assemblymen in his pocket already from previous conflicted relationships, parties, in wine country, direct campaign investments or indirect benefits.

    My guess is the Federal Government may have interest in this matter from the IRS perspective for use of Darius Anderson’s non-profit, and State Dept or OFAC for use of his permit to travel.

    Did you know Darius was soliciting vacation trips through Sonoma Museum of Art? Didn’t seem to me to meet the spirit of the permits and US Policies. He has an itinerary on the website perhaps its the same as the one the Assemblymen were “ordered to shred immediately upon return?”

    Reply this comment
  7. Benjamin
    Benjamin 16 April, 2013, 11:31

    So is it my imagination, or is Darius Anderson just completely ignoring any or all of the Laws, Embargoes and Sanctions that pertain to Cuba. Darius Anderson is basically “shoving” Cuba in the face of America, with the city of Sonoma being his operations center.

    Where is the justice.

    Reply this comment

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