State elected officials solicited more than $33 million worth of contributions during 2008 – much of it from special interests with political agendas. The pace this year is faster, with about $8.3 million in little more than 60 days.
Although dwarfed by the more widely known campaign donations and lobbying payments, the politically driven charitable donations represent a critical Capitol piece of the linkage between politics and money. They are payments that a politician solicits to benefit a particular cause. Critics contend they allow special interests to win favor from powerful officials without donating directly to their campaigns.
Because the reporting threshold is high — $5,000 — and there are no limits, the actual level of donations may be far higher than is publicly disclosed.
“We may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg,” said Ross Johnson, chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces the state’s election laws. In the three years from 2005 through 2007, about $10.5 million in behested payments were reported.
But that number has ballooned in recent years.
During 2008 and the first two months of 2009, lawmakers reported a total of $41.3 million in such payments. Of the $41.3 million, about $20.2 million was solicited in the Assembly and $11.4 million in the Senate. Some $9.7 million was solicited by statewide constitutional officers – almost entirely by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Attorney General Jerry Brown, a Democrat.
Brown’s behests went to two Oakland institutions – the Oakland Military Institute and Oakland School of the Arts.
“The attorney general is very proud of these two schools,” said Brown spokesman Scott Gerber. “They are outstanding institutions of learning and excellence and are at the heart of his efforts to revitalize downtown Oakland. Both schools are of such quality and such importance (and) it’s completely understandable why so many people and foundations would want to support them and see them succeed.”
The governor’s behests financed various conferences, among other things, that included a meeting on climate change and a gathering of border governors.
“The governor always makes decisions based on what’s best for the people and not special interests. These groups have donated because they believe in his mission,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear. “Every behested gift is fully transparent and is disclosed to the public. They benefit the state and don’t cost taxpayers a dime.”
Behests in the Assembly and Senate financed a variety of causes, including millions of dollars of legal work in connection with lawsuits involving the state.
“There is no question that some behested payments go to legitimate charities,” Johnson added, “but beyond that, they often go to further a particular project or cause of the elected official soliciting the funds.” By law, they are supposed to further “legislative, charitable or governmental” purposes.
An attempt in 2007 to ease the regulations by raising the reporting threshold to $7,000 and extending the reporting deadline to 90 days, was yanked from the governor’s desk by the bill’s author, Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, after Johnson complained.Starting Jan. 1, the law was expanded to include members of the PUC, following disclosures last year during a commissioner’s Senate confirmation hearing.
By far, the most prodigious practitioners of are Schwarzenegger and Brown. Indeed, thus far in 2009, they two are the only statewide political figures who have solicited the payments, which in both cases earlier include seven-digit contributions.
Last year, of the $9.8 million worth of contributions directed by statewide officers, all but $124,500 came through Brown and Schwarzenegger. Since January 2008, the governor has channeled some $5.2 million from an array of interests – including GE and its affiliates, Deloitte Consulting, Aga Khan University Foundation, PG&E, Edison International, California Conference of Carpenters, University of Phoenix and others. About a fifth of the money raised – some $1.2 million – went to the California State Protocol Foundation, which also helps finance the governor’s travel and lodging, as well as a number of public-benefit programs. The governor, a wealthy businessman and former movie actor, does not take a state salary.
The biggest single donor on Schwarzenegger’s behalf is GE-Corporate Americas, which contributed $1.62 million last September to help support the Border Governors Conference and related activities. A number of six-figure donations listed separately, including $368,593, $122,965, $155,707 and $142,629, came from a GE-related entity, “GE, c/o Universal Studios Hollywood Theme Park and CityWalk Special Events,” which provided eight of the governor’s top 10 donations, most of which were used to finance the border conference.
Deloitte Consulting donated $515,000 to the California Volunteers program, a favorite project of the governor and his wife, Maria Shriver. Other top donors included the Aga Khan University Foundation, which gave $200,000 for the governor’s climate change summit, money that, like many other donations, moved through the California Protocol Foundation, according to the FPPC reports. The donors to the Climate Change Summit included a number of energy companies or utilities, including BP, PG&E, Edison International and FP&L.
Although the payments are listed as charitable contributions, the money in many cases was used for events that brought clear political benefits to the governor, such as the climate-change conference and the border governors’ meeting.
Brown, like the governor, has been aggressive in courting charitable donations. Unlike the governor, however, Brown has focused on two causes – the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts. All of Brown’s $4.55 million in 150 donations during 2008-09 went to the two institutions.
Brown’s payments tend to be smaller than the governor’s, but there are more of them. The largest contributors are the Annenberg Foundation, which gave $1 million to the Oakland Military Institute, and a company listed as the “B. Co. c/o Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher,” which donated $1,003,685. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher is a Los Angeles law firm.
The General Atlantic Corporation donated $150,000, and Los Angeles businessman Ron Burkle donated $100,000.
Meanwhile, nearly three dozen donors gave $25,000 each, and about 40 gave $10,000 apiece. Starting Jan. 1, the law was expanded to include members of the Public Utilities Commission.
The change, authored by the Senate Rules Committee, stemmed from activities of PUC Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon, who solicited donations from major utilities to finance an energy conference promoted by the governor. The solicitations emerged during his Senate confirmation proceedings.
According to consultants’ analyses in the Senate and Assembly, at the time of the donations the utilities had business before the Legislature. Two weeks after the conference the PUC approved changes in an energy-efficiency program sought by the utilities, which allowed them to receive bonuses “even if they fell substantially short of power-saving goals…under some circumstances the change could be worth $176 million,” the analyses said.
In the Legislature, members of the Assembly have solicited $20.21 million since January 2008, while senators have solicited $9.7 million, a total
of about $30.41 million. Last week, the Assembly Rules Committee reminded members about the rules surrounding behested payments, and noted that “the FPPC has yet to adopt regulations interpreting these rules.” The advisory suggested that lawmakers contact the Assembly Legislative Ethics Committee.
“The maximum campaign contribution today for a member of the Legislature is $3,900. But a hypothetical senator, for example, can solicit up to $5,000 per calendar year, and a four-year term of the Legislature encompasses five calendar years. That person could solicit $24,999.95 during their term of office, and not report it to anyone,” Johnson said.