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DeLeon.jpgBy Laurel Rosenhall and Torey Van Oot

No matter that the 49ers lost - the Super Bowl was still a $60,000 win for the California Democratic Party.

That's how much the party netted from an exclusive fundraising event in which a handful of Sacramento lobbyists spent Super Bowl weekend in New Orleans with a powerful state senator. The experience included a private plane ride across the country with Sen. Kevin de León, lodging with him in a French Quarter vacation home and tickets to the hottest football game of the year.

Organizers would not say who attended or how much they paid, but three Capitol advocates were with the group - Dustin Corcoran, chief executive officer of the California Medical Association; Scott Wetch, a lobbyist representing unions, insurance companies and health care groups; and Scott Govenar, a lobbyist representing finance interests and one Indian tribe.

Govenar and Wetch said they were there, but declined to comment further. Jason Kinney, a communications consultant for the Senate Democratic caucus who organized and attended the fundraiser, would not confirm or deny the names of attendees. Corcoran did not respond to requests for comment.

De León, a Los Angeles Democrat, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee - a position that allows him huge influence over which bills get a vote by the full house. He said the weekend was not about work.

"We didn't talk about any issues whatsoever. It was all about the Super Bowl," de León said. "The same laws apply over there. Whether it's in Louisiana or here, you can't sit down at a fundraiser and engage in policy matters."

Even so, lobbyists and the groups they represent gain an advantage by spending a weekend bonding with an influential lawmaker, said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

"This kind of travel provides the well-heeled interests the opportunity to have significant amounts of face time with elected and other party officials, something that is not available to average Americans," she said.

"And it is important not to underestimate how important that is in politics - being able to have somebody return your calls, know who you are and socialize."

Campaign finance records for the event have not yet been made public, so many details remain unknown, including how much the California Democratic Party spent to put it on, and how much donors paid to participate.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he approved the fundraiser.

Raising money is an essential part of politics, Steinberg said, and the $60,000 the party cleared from the Super Bowl event will be used to pay for the 2014 campaigns of Democratic state Senate candidates.

"Part of my responsibility is to prepare to win elections," he said.

"If I had the full ability to change the way we finance campaigns in this country and this state, I would do so. But the rules are the rules. And you either raise the resources necessary to compete, so you can fight for your constituents and the people we represent, or you put yourself at a significant disadvantage."

Steinberg said the party paid face value for transportation, lodging and game tickets. About a half-dozen donors participated, he said.

State law forbids lobbyists from giving campaign contributions and limits the value of gifts non-lobbyists can give government officials to $440. But there are many legal work-arounds that allow fundraisers like this one to take place.

Generally, lobbyists don't personally make the contributions required to attend - their interest group clients do. And the limit on gifts to public officials doesn't apply to fundraising events.

Phillip Ung, a good-government advocate with California Common Cause, questioned the ethics of a fundraising event that includes just a handful of donors.

"How do you consider something a fundraiser if ... it just looks like a gift?" Ung said.

"Lobbyists are banned from giving donations for a reason. But if they can attend fundraising trips, it's almost as if the ban doesn't matter."

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.

PHOTO CREDIT: Senator Kevin De León, D-Los Angeles, in 2011.The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua



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