New gift rules would benefit legislators dating lobbyists
State legislators in dating “relationships’’ with lobbyists would not have to limit or disclose dinners, concert tickets and other gifts they accept from their partner under one of several controversial proposals being considered by the state ethics watchdog agency.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission on Thursday began the process of overhauling the state’s gift rules for public officials with the goal of making them easier to understand and comply with. “My goal is clarity and openness,’’ said commission Chair Ann Ravel.
But open-government activists said some of the proposals failed to plug existing loopholes in gift rules and would add new ones that could give lobbyists undue influence.
State law prohibits public officials from accepting gifts valued at more than $420 from most sources or $10 from a registered lobbyist, and generally requires officials to disclose gifts worth more than $50 a year.
The commission put off a vote until Dec. 8 on a proposal to allow public officials in a “dating relationship’’ with a lobbyist to accept and not disclose “personal benefits commonly exchanged between people on a date or in a dating relationship.’’
Commission attorney William J. Lenkeit said the rules would still require public officials to disclose a conflict of interest if an issue comes up for their action that involves a dating partner who has given them gifts.
“We didn’t think it was right for the government to say you have to post your social itinerary on a government form,’’ Lenkeit told the panel. Ravel agreed, saying “It was a balance of the privacy issue and the interests of disclosure.’’
But Kathay Feng, the head of California Common Cause, objected to what she sees as a loophole.
“Given the recent egregious examples of relationships between legislators and lobbyists crossing the line, the public has every right to know what gifts a lobbyist is giving to a legislator,’’ Feng said. “The concern with potential corruption does not stop just because the relationship has entered the bedroom.’’
Common Cause also objected to another rule, which was adopted by the commission Thursday, which exempts from disclosure "home hospitality" gifts, including food, drink and lodging provided in a home by the home’s owner, even if that person is a lobbyist.
Ravel noted that the regulations have long given lobbyists an exception for “home hospitality’’ gifts. “We have actually made it more restrictive,’’ Ravel said. The new rules only allow the exemption to individuals “with whom the official has a relationship, connection, or association unrelated to the official’s position and the hospitality is provided as part of that relationship.…’’
That does not go far enough, said Phillip Ung, an advocate for Common Cause, arguing that it allows a lobbyist who has a friendly and ongoing relationship with a legislator but does not lobby that legislator to provide home hospitality in a Tahoe cabin.
“This totally goes against the intent of the $10 limit,’’ Ung said.
He also voiced concern about a rule adopted by the commission that allows public officials to reimburse interests that lobby them for a portion of a gift’s value to keep it under the $420 limit.
Commissioner Ronald Rotunda voiced concern that a special interest could give an official a $1,000 Rolex watch and the official could keep it without disclosing its full value as long as he pays the giver $580. “There is something unseemly’’ about that transaction, Rotunda said. “It just doesn’t look right.’’
Rotunda had to leave the meeting before the commission voted 4 to 0 to approve that rule.
--Patrick McGreevy, reporting from Sacramento.