FPPC ponders tightening use of campaign cash for travel, gifts

The Fair Political Practices Commission is crafting a new regulation that would crack down on the use of political cash for gifts, food and out-of-state travel–an apparent response triggered by widely published reports of Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez's spending on luxury hotels and European travel.

The proposed FPPC rule will be considered at the commission's Dec. 13 meeting. FPPC spokesman Roman Porter did not say whether the proposed regulation was prompted by Nunez's spending, but said the issue had long been a concern of FPPC Chairman Ross Johnson, a Republican and former lawmaker who was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A spokesman for Nunez, Steve Maviglio, said the speaker supports the new restrictions. "Speaker Núñez has always complied with state regulations on gifts and travel, and welcomes proposals to improve accountability to the public," said  Maviglio.

The regulation would require officials and candidates to demonstrate that  spending of campaign dollars is  for a political, legislative or governmental purpose, known as "PLG" among commission enforcers. Such requirements–at least ostensibly–are required now, but the proposed regulation would tighten those rules, and require the campaigns to maintain detailed records of the spending for auditors, especially in cases where the spending resulted in a "direct, personal benefit" to lawmakers."

The FPPC has not "previously interpreted this requirement to include a description sufficient to identify a PLG for some expenditures. This is particularly troublesome for expenditures such as gifts, meals, and out-of-state travel because the PLG for these expenditures is not readily apparent," the FPPC staff said in its memorandum describing the proposed regulation.

"However, if an expenditure of campaign funds confers a ‘substantial personal benefit' on a candidate; pays for a personal gift; or pays for the travel or accommodations of a candidate, elected officer, or anyone with the authority to approve the expenditure of campaign funds, the expenditure must be directly related to a PLG," the staff said.

In Nunez's case, the speaker spent thousands of dollars of campaign money on an array of hotel stays, luxury items, travel and lavish dinners. And while he is not the only elected official to have used political money for nonpolitical purposes, his spending is among the most dramatic, recent examples.

An Oct. 5 story in the Los Angeles Times reported the spending included $47,412 on United, Lufthansa and Air France airlines, $8,745 at the Hotel Arts in Barcelona, Spain; $5,419 for a meeting at the Cave L'Avant Garde in the Bordeaux region of France, and $1,795 for a meeting at La Grand Colbert, a Parisian restaurant. He also spent $1,715 meeting at Asia de Cuba restaurant in West Hollywood; $317 at upscale Pavilion Salon Shoes in Sacramento; a $2,428 meeting at 58 Degrees and Holding, a Sacramento wine bar and bistro; and $800 spent at Dollar Rent a Car in Kihei, Hawaii.

Asked at the time about his foreign travel in general, Nuñez said: "For me, it's a question of: Is my perspective on issues broad enough? Do I have enough context when I make decisions? This is a big state to run. You've got to know what you're doing."

"These trips," he added, "at least the ones I've taken — I feel very confident and comfortable that they're not only justified but necessary for the decisions I need to make on a daily basis."

Nunez's staff said the spending was properly reported and disclosed. The FPPC memorandum does not suggest otherwise, but says the existing rules should be strengthened.

Much of the spending was from a campaign account, the "Friends of Fabian Nunez," which has raised some $5.8 million.

Prior to new raises that are scheduled to take affect for most lawmakers, Nunez earned $130,000 annually as speaker, plus $170 tax-free per diem each day the Legislature meets.

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