According to recent disclosures from the Fair Political Practices Commission, state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, both attended a private conference in November in Maui and were reimbursed more than $2,700 each.
The conference is the brainchild of the nonprofit Independent Voter Project, which brings legislators and powerful special-interest groups together in a luxurious private setting far from the scrutiny of the California media. The five-day Maui conference takes advantage of a loophole that allows elected officials to be reimbursed an unlimited amount for travel expenses and lodging by nonprofit groups as long as the official is speaking at the conference or participating in panel discussions.
In addition, nonprofit groups are not required to disclose the identity of the lawmakers receiving reimbursements, nor are they required to disclose the identity of their benefactors.
The current gift limit for any single lobbyist or lobbying firm per calendar month is $10 and the limit for any other single source per calendar year is $440. But reimbursements are not counted as gifts.
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The Independent Voter Project’s slogan on its website is “Democracy functions best when the most people participate.”
The group supports open primaries and claims to promote lively political discussions by hearing viewpoints from all sides of the spectrum.
On the other hand, three of its corporate donors are among the 20 largest corporations doing business in California. Sponsors attending November’s conference shelled out $7,000 each to attend roundtable discussions with lawmakers covering topics such as energy, economic development, health care and public safety.
Apparently, legislators prefer the tropical breezes of Maui to the firestorm it would create if a private conference of lawmakers and powerful special interest groups were meeting in California. Though there is a rule against discussing pending legislation during the Maui conference, there are “opportunities” in the late afternoon and evening hours to interact.
These “opportunities” for lobbyists and business executives to wine and dine lawmakers at one of Maui’s finest resorts raise a red flag for advocates of good government. A statewide report showed that more than $500,000 in travel expenses were reimbursed to California lawmakers in 2013.
This should stop. Legislation is needed to provide greater scrutiny of nonprofit conferences. Specifically, standards must be set to determine which ones are legitimately in the best interest of the people of California. One condition should be true public transparency; if meetings are closed, so should be the checkbooks.
Additionally, the identity of guest speakers providing their expertise on specific issues should be disclosed.
People throughout California have reason to be concerned over the deterioration of our democratic principles. The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, which opened the floodgates for unlimited contributions from anonymous donors, has supercharged the power that corporations and wealthy individuals have in our electoral process.
If we are to meet California’s challenges, all elected representatives should conduct themselves with openness, transparency and accountability. The loophole that allows reimbursements for travel expenses for attending a private conferences in the company of corporate donors is unacceptable. That the so-called conference was off-limits to the media and public means the organization doesn’t want people knowing what is being discussed.
More than a century ago, U.S. Sen. Mark Hanna, who helped President William McKinley get elected in 1896, said, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”