Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Governor's trips must be disclosed

SACRAMENTO — Some of the most influential business leaders who've underwritten Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's trips abroad will now have to do so more openly under a rule adopted Monday by the state's political ethics watchdog agency.

The rule will prohibit private groups from providing gifts such as travel expenses to agencies on behalf of elected officials and others — a practice employed by Schwarzenegger that has been criticized as too secretive. Starting in July, the Fair Political Practices Commission will require donors to make gifts directly to officials, who must report the details on their publicly available statements of financial interest.

"The commission is moving to close loopholes and making sure gifts that are intended for high-ranking government officials cannot be made behind the public's back," said Ross Johnson, the chairman of the commission. "If someone wants to pay for an official's travel they can make a gift directly to that official if it's within the gift limits and is fully disclosed by the official."

Under another rule adopted Monday, elected officials will now have to explain what political purpose their donor-paid trips to California wineries, day spas or golf courses could possibly have.

A previous rules change approved in February would have required lawmakers to report only out-of-state travel — the kind that resulted in a lavish spending spree by then-Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los AdvertisementAngeles, last year.

The new rules, which begin next month and will apply to the November elections, will also require lawmakers to not only report but briefly describe the political, governmental or legislative purpose of meals and gifts paid for out of campaign funds.

"This is a huge step forward in shining the light on campaign expenditures," said Carmen Balber, political accountability director at Consumer Watchdog, a group that monitors campaign finance reporting. "My hope is that it will rein in personal extravagances ... and make politicians think twice before misusing campaign funds."

A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said he would adapt to the change requiring supporters to list their travel subsidies as gifts directly to him.

"The governor always has and will continue to abide by whatever reporting rules the FPPC adopts," said Aaron McLear.

The private network of Schwarzenegger supporters that have paid for his travel has stayed largely out of public view by filing its contributions as gifts to the governor's office. Under the current rules, Balber said, the governor's office has kept minimal records and been stingy in providing what details it had.

"Now, the governor won't be able to pretend that the organization is just giving money to his office, and to say that his office is benefitting, not the governor," Balber said. "The public will be able to see the amount and description of what the trip was for."

The California Protocol Foundation has spent more than $2 million since 2004 for foreign trade trips Schwarzenegger and aides have taken to Asia, Canada and Mexico. The group is headed by California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg and California Business Roundtable President William Hauck.

The foundation also paid for a trip the governor took last year to Britain and France and to his hometown in Austria.

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