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March 7, 2014
Editorial: Ethics bills aren't much of a reform, predictably


(March 7 — By the Editorial Board)

Lawmakers have a tough time making laws curbing their practices, as became apparent once more the other day.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, heir apparent Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles and Sen. Ricardo Lara, who is chairman of the Latino Caucus, hoped to score points by offering three bills to overhaul troubling aspects of policymaking and politics in Sacramento.

The trio of bills hardly warrant the term reform. Reactive, understandable and predictable are more apt.

Senate Democrats had to do something, given that one of their own, Rod Wright, has been convicted of perjury for lying about where he lived, and another, Ron Calderon, was indicted on charges of selling out to a hospital owner and thinking he had sold out to movie executives who turned out to be FBI agents.

One bill seeks to ban fundraisers in lobbyists' homes. OK. Consultants, lawyers, and executives of interest groups and corporations who aren't registered to lobby still could hold fundraisers in their homes. Not many points for that one.

A second bill would require quarterly campaign finance filings in off-election years, rather than the current standard of filing every six months. Again, that's not worth many points.

Why not require weekly disclosure or, better yet, constant disclosure of any donation of, say, $500 or more? The Internet makes such reporting possible.

Constant disclosure might dissuade legislators from engaging in the unseemly practice of holding fundraisers at the ends of legislative sessions. If there were immediate disclosure, the public could see which interests are tossing around $1,000 checks as legislators cast votes affecting important issues.

Another bill further restricts gifts given to legislators. No longer could legislators accept free spa services, golf, or tickets to theme parks, concerts and sports events. That's nice. But again, it's hardly much of a reform.

Nothing would prevent sports teams or others seeking to get in the good graces of elected officials and their aides from selling tickets at face value. Tickets to a 49ers playoff game are hard to get, but not if the football team holds a few back for sale to special guests.

The three bills do nothing to curb foreign and domestic junkets. Nor do they limit the growing use of behested payments - beheists, as some wags are wont call them.

At legislators' behest, interest groups donate to the charities of legislators' choice. Some charities might do some good. For the most part, however, politicians use behested payments to aggrandize themselves by having donors deliver money to charities.

Lara is one of the biggest abusers, having behested $292,000 in 2013, most of it for the California Legislative Latino Caucus, of which he is chairman.

At Lara's behest, Chevron gave $30,000 to the Latino Caucus. Drugmaker Eli Lilly gave $25,000, and AT&T and Hewlett-Packard gave $20,000 each - sums that are far in excess of the maximum that donors can give directly to legislators.

Understandably and predictably, legislators reacted to the scandals of the day by pushing bills dealing with some of the more problematic aspects of politics. But as lawmakers showed, reforming oneself is hard to do.