California lobbyists write checks to legislators running for Congress

lrosenhall@sacbee.comDecember 16, 2011 

When Anthony Portantino ran for state Assembly in 2006, Sacramento lobbyists were forbidden from contributing to his campaign. But now that Portantino is considering a run for Congress, the lobbyists he has worked with since joining the Legislature are free to help him seek federal office.

Many are.

At least nine of Sacramento's registered lobbyists contributed to Portantino's congressional campaign during the first nine months of this year, a review of federal elections data shows. Local lobbyists also are giving to the congressional campaigns of several other state lawmakers, including Sen. Ron Calderon, Assemblyman Isadore Hall and Assemblyman Jared Huffman.

California law forbids lobbyists from donating to candidates running for state office. But federal law governs congressional races, and it allows lobbyists to give to those candidates – even if they are in the Legislature still casting votes.

"I can tell you that every lobbyist in town has gotten (fundraising) calls from sitting members of the Legislature who are running for Congress," said Ed Manning, a lobbyist with KP Public Affairs, which represents the oil industry among its many clients.

Manning is one of those who gave to Portantino this year. Since 2004, he has contributed more than $10,000 to the congressional campaigns of current or former California legislators.

The practice is legal, and contributions are disclosed in the Federal Election Commission's public database. Still, the flow of money from lobbyists' personal bank accounts to politicians' campaigns raises questions about power and influence in the state and national capitols.

"You have an inconsistent message," said Meredith McGehee, an expert in campaign finance law with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

"At the state level, the message is, 'We think these contributions tend to be corrupting when they're given to state employees.' But somehow when they're given to a federal candidate, they're not?"

Most lobbyists and politicians are reticent to talk about the contributions. Many did not return calls for this story, including some lobbyists with a long history of giving to federal-level campaigns.

Since 1997, lobbyist Darius Anderson, owner of Platinum Advisors, has given more than $99,000 to federal campaigns, while his wife, Sarah, has given more than $24,000, according to FEC filings. Lobbyist Aaron Read, who represents many law enforcement unions as owner of Aaron Read and Associates, has given more than $11,000 since 1999. His wife, Kathleen, has given almost $17,000.

Lobbyists fret over pleas

Some Sacramento lobbyists are quietly grousing about being hit up for congressional donations, saying the requests could alter their working relationships with legislators during the next year before the election. They fear lawmakers will remember who gave and who didn't – and could respond accordingly to lobbyists' pleas for votes.

Lawmakers Calderon, Hall and Huffman did not return calls for this story. Portantino said campaign contributions do not shape how he votes.

"I approach every issue based on the merit of the policy," he said. "I'm going to continue to do that."

Other lobbyists back up the idea that concerns about undue influence are overblown.

"Are there some (lawmakers) who might think of you differently because you gave them money? Some, yes. Most of them, probably not," Manning said.

"My experience is, those members raise so much money in so many places, they don't even remember."

Randy Perry, an Aaron Read lobbyist, said he gave $1,000 to Portantino earlier this year after the lawmaker paid a visit to the firm asking for support for his congressional campaign. Perry said concerns about influence are moot because he never lobbies the federal government.

"I don't ever see Congress people," Perry said. "I'm in California; I never go back to D.C. I don't talk to them, they don't come to see me."

But legislators running for federal office are still considering bills in Sacramento, and everyone who campaigns for Congress will not necessarily fly off to Washington. Some lose their races and return to Sacramento. Others do some fundraising, then decide not to run.

Portantino said he hasn't yet made up his mind, and eased up his fundraising efforts after redistricting maps made an open congressional seat less likely.

If he decides to stay in California, Portantino could transfer most of the money he has raised in his congressional campaign fund to a state campaign committee – but would have to exclude any donations from lobbyists, according to California's Fair Political Practices Commission.

Donors see little effect

Gil Cedillo was a state senator when he ran for Congress during a special election in 2009. He lost the Democratic primary, then ran successfully for state Assembly in 2010.

At least 16 registered lobbyists contributed to Cedillo's congressional campaign in 2009 – and many of them now lobby him as an assemblyman. But lobbyist Joe Lang said his $500 donation to Cedillo two years ago doesn't change the relationship they have now.

"Do I think it's important to support friends who are in difficult races? Yeah, I think it is," Lang said. "It's not like I'm terribly close to Gil, but he'd been around a long time and I respect him."

Lobbyist Michael Burns, who gave $1,000 to Cedillo's congressional campaign, said he chooses carefully when making political contributions and doesn't feel compelled to give to every legislator who runs.

"I like Gil personally, and I think he's committed to what he does. I think he would have been a good member of Congress for California, that's why I gave to him," Burns said.

Rick Hasen, a UC Irvine professor who specializes in election law, said the trend of California lobbyists giving to federal races indicates that they would likely give to legislative races, too, if state law allowed it.

California's ban on the practice could eventually be ruled an unconstitutional infringement on lobbyists' First Amendment rights, Hasen said, because political donations are a form of free speech.

Federal courts are split on the question. Bans similar to California's were challenged in Connecticut and North Carolina in the last year, with opposite outcomes. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the ban in North Carolina, saying it was justified by the government's interest in preventing corruption. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal struck it down in Connecticut, saying there wasn't enough evidence of corruption to support the ban.

"There is an emerging constitutional question," Hasen said. "The ban may not be around forever."

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