Capitol Alert

The latest on California politics and government

February 6, 2014
Sacramento lobbying firm fined for lavish fundraisers with lawmakers

By Laurel Rosenhall and David Siders

The state Fair Political Practices Commission is issuing warning letters to as many as 40 state elected officials after reaching a tentative agreement to fine a firm headed by a Sacramento lobbyist who held lavish fundraisers for politicians at his home, sources told The Bee.

Sloat Higgins Jensen and Associates, a lobbying firm headed by Kevin Sloat, has reached a tentative agreement with FPPC staff to pay fines involving violations of state political disclosure rules.

The action was prompted by a lawsuit filed in Sacramento Superior Court against Sloat and his firm in December by a disgruntled former employee under investigation for embezzlement.

Rhonda Smira, a former bookkeeper at Sloat's firm, alleged that his elaborate events amount to non-monetary campaign contributions that lobbyists are not permitted to give. Her wrongful termination suit says Sloat fired her for questioning whether his conduct violated California's lobbying laws.

"At these fundraisers, (Sloat) made contributions to elected officials by providing catering, expensive wine, decorations, flowers, imported cigars and high-end cognac, scotches and whiskeys," the lawsuit says.

"Over the course of several years, Smira repeatedly voiced her concerns about the illegal contributions prior to each fundraising event at Sloat's private residence. On every occasion, she was reprimanded by (Sloat) and was finally directed... to 'never talk to him again' about her concerns."

The suit does not name the officials who benefited from the events, but specifies that at least 11 state senators, 26 members of the Assembly "and various other high ranking public officials" raised money for their campaigns by attending events at Sloat's home in an enclave of multi-million dollar houses off of Fair Oaks Boulevard.

At the time, Sloat responded to Smira's lawsuit with a statement describing it as "a desperate legal maneuver" by a terminated bookkeeper who is under criminal investigation for stealing from his firm. The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office has confirmed it is reviewing a potential charge of grand theft against Smira.

"It is important to view her lawsuit in its proper context," Sloat's statement said.

California law tries to prevent corruption by putting strict limits on lobbyists who register with the state. They can't give state government officials campaign contributions or gifts of more than $10 in a month. If they host a political fundraiser in their house, it's supposed to be a low-key affair that costs no more than $500.

Sen. Jerry Hill said he was told Thursday that he and several other lawmakers will be receiving a warning letter on Monday for a fundraiser Sloat hosted for them in 2009.

"We made the correct reporting based on the information we had," Hill said, adding that other lawmakers, including then-Assemblymembers Jose Solario, D-Santa Ana, Marty Block, D-San Diego, Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills, Norma Torres, D-Pomona and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, were also expecting letters from the FPPC.

The Bee could not reach them Thursday night.

Hill said the catering expenses he knew of had been properly reported by his campaign but was told Sloat provided high-end liquor and cigars that amounted to an illegal in-kind campaign contribution.

"The unfortunate thing is the perception is we did something wrong, where in reality we reported what we knew about," he said. We get wrapped into it, which makes no sense."

Sloat founded his lobbying firm in 1997 following a long career in Republican politics, including as the chief legislative adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson.

Today, his firm is one of the biggest players in Capitol politics. It brought in $4.7 million last year, according to filings with the Secretary of State's Office, making it the sixth-highest earning lobbying shop in California.

Sloat's firm has five registered lobbyists and serves dozens of clients, including cities, utility companies, education groups and casino-owning Indian tribes. Verizon, PG&E and the San Francisco 49ers are on Sloat's long list of clients.

Smira's lawsuit does not say which clients were asked to contribute to the fundraisers Sloat hosted. But she describes a list of 30 clients she was told to invite to every event at his house. In exchange for attending Sloat's parties, the suit says, "clients were promised exclusive access to the Governor, legislators or candidates."

After years of complaining to Sloat about her ethical concerns with his hospitality, Smira's lawsuit says Sloat told her in 2010 to scale back the amount he spent by asking the political candidates to pay for the catering.

But Sloat continued to "provide thousands of dollars of wine, cigars, scotch and other alcoholic beverages," Smira's suit says. It continues:

"While Defendants changed some of their activities, they continued to illegally make in-kind contributions.

February 6, 2014
'Amtrak Joe' Biden tours Sacramento-built locomotive


Vice President Joe Biden, who famously commuted from Delaware to the U.S. Senate by train for many years, got behind the controls of Amtrak's newest electric locomotive Thursday.

Biden and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx were given a tour of Amtrak's ACS-64 "Cities Sprinter" locomotive at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. The red, blue and silver locomotive is one of 70 built for Amtrak by Siemens in South Sacramento.

"I'm ready to roll," Biden said when he sat in the engineer's seat, according to a White House pool report, although he didn't actually take the locomotive for a spin.

The locomotives were financed by a nearly $600 million loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. The Siemens plant in California employs about 800 workers and builds passenger locomotives and equipment for transit systems.

Biden and Foxx went to Philadelphia to mark the locomotive's debut on the Northeast Corridor and talk about the need for infrastructure investment.

PHOTO: Vice President Joe Biden speaks at an unveiling of Amtrak Siemens ACS-64 Cities Sprinter electric locomotive in Philadelphia on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014. Associated Press/Michael Perez

February 6, 2014
Ted Lieu hires big-name California consultants for congressional run


A pair of political heavyweights has joined state Sen. Ted Lieu's congressional bid.

Gale Kaufman and Bill Carrick were tapped to help guide the Torrance Democrat's campaign for the seat of retiring Rep. Henry Waxman.

Lieu is running in what could become a crowded field for the open 33rd Congressional District. Former Los Angeles Controller Wendy Greuel, coming off a tough loss in the city's mayoral campaign, has already been endorsed by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Among Lieu's early supporters are Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters and Alan Lowenthal and Los Angeles City Council members Mike Bonin and Paul Koretz.

Kaufman, who specializes in statewide ballot measure campaigns, has worked on races for dozens of state and federal candidates, including presidential hopeful Bill Bradley. Carrick, a longtime consultant for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Lois Capps, recently helped run the campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and is working on former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver's supervisorial run.

Joining Lieu and Greuel in the race are independents Marianne Williamson, an author, and Brent Roske, a producer. Republican-turned-independent Bill Bloomfield is said to be weighing a run.

PHOTO: Sen.Ted Lieu, D-Torrance during session at the Capitol in March. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

February 6, 2014
Californians dominate 'most liberal' rankings in Congress

chu.jpgCalifornia's 53-member congressional delegation, like Congress as a whole, is deeply divided along ideological lines - but its Democrats may be the deepest shade of blue.

The National Journal, a leading publication on national politics and policy, calculates in its current issue that six of the House's 15 most liberal members, based on their voting records, come from California.

Conversely, none of the 15 most conservative members of Congress is from California.

The National Journal perused the voting records for an extensive examination of the ideological polarization of Congress and calculated that Californians Judy Chu, Sam Farr, Mike Honda and Jared Huffman are among seven members tied for No. 1 in liberalism while California's Alan Lowenthal and Linda Sanchez are tied for eighth.

And if you're wondering about the state's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, neither made the most liberal senator list.

PHOTO: Rep. Judy Chu, 2008.

February 6, 2014
California Republicans seek to redirect high-speed rail dollars


Saying California has betrayed the will of voters who approved a controversial high-speed rail project, Assembly Republicans on Thursday proposed giving those voters a redo.

"It's clear that the current high-speed rail project hardly resembles what the voters narrowly approved," said Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare.

Under the plan announced by a group of Republicans, voters would be able to decide whether to channel $8.5 billion in bond money, endorsed by voters via a 2008 ballot initiative, towards local transportation infrastucture projects.

The plan reflects both Republican ire over Gov. Jerry Brown's embattled project and the train's tenuous financial position. A Sacramento Superior Court judge in November ordered the Brown administration to tear up its funding plan, saying it had strayed from the terms of Proposition 1A, which authorized the bond issue back in 2008.

The Brown administration has since prevailed upon the California Supreme Court, and the high court ordered the case to be sent back to a lower court for an expedited review.

In addition to redirecting the high-speed rail money, the Republican package of four bills would dedicate up to $2.5 billion of a newfound state surplus to paying off transportation loans; ensure billions in fuel tax money flows annually into local infrastructure projects, per the terms of Proposition 42; and compel the state to repay $2.5 billion in gasoline tax revenue diverted elsewhere during lean budget years.

PHOTO: Assemblywoman Connie Conway, joined by fellow Republicans, unveils the caucus' transportation package in the State Capitol on February 6, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/Jeremy B. White.

February 6, 2014
At license plate launch, Toni Atkins gets a special visitor


Good grief, Toni Atkins!

The San Diego Democrat and presumptive future Assembly speaker joined other state officials on Thursday in unveiling a new California license plate featuring the image of Snoopy, the iconic cartoon beagle of Peanuts fame.

"I look forward to seeing Snoopy do his signature twirly-feet dance on license plates all over the state," Atkins said.

Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz hails from Santa Rosa, and California has used the original Snoopy drawing with permission from his family. Atkins last year carried a bill creating the license plate, with proceeds going to competitive grants for museums.

The California Cultural and Historical Endowment will oversee the grant program. Highlighting the goal of helping museums, sample license plates displayed during a Thursday event at the California History Museum (tags: 1CADOG, MUSEOS) featured the phrase "museums are for everyone" in red text.

When it came time for Atkins to sign up for a new license plate, she got some encouragement from a Snoopy-suited visitor who gestured and bobbed enthusiastically about the new fund.

The Snoopy plates will join a dozen other special-interest license plates offered by the state. The existing plates support Lake Tahoe, pets, firefighters and other causes.

PHOTO: Toni Atkins signs up for a new license plate with an enthusiastic famous guest looking on at Sacramento's California History Museum on February 6, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/Jeremy B. White.

February 6, 2014
AM Alert: Assembly committee heads to SF for hearing on banking program

Bank_of_Rio_Vista.JPGThe Assembly Committee on Banking and Finance takes a field trip to San Francisco today for an informational hearing on the Bank on California program, an initiative encouraging poor and immigrant Californians to use mainstream financial services that got its start in the City by the Bay.

Launched statewide in 2008 by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the program is a collaboration between local governments, financial institution and community organizations that eases some requirements and lowers fees for opening a starter bank account. More than 214,000 accounts have been opened through the program, according to the office of Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, but about 7.8 percent of Californians remain "unbanked."

Dickinson, the Sacramento Democrat who chairs the banking and finance committee, introduced a bill last year that would give Bank on California a permanent home in the Department of Business Oversight. It passed through the Assembly but was held in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

VIDEO: As the transportation picture has gotten more complex, Caltrans has lost its way, Dan Walters says.

PEANUTS POWER: The California Association of Museums and the DMV are debuting new specialty license plates featuring beloved beagle Snoopy that will benefit California museums. Among those scheduled to attend the launch event, 10 a.m. at the California Museum on O Street, is Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

INTERNATIONAL EXPANSION: Hong Kong's economic and trade commissioner to the United States is in Sacramento to promote investment in China and Asia. Clement Leung will speak at the California Chamber of Commerce on K Street at noon about business opportunities in the Asian market and how California companies can gain a foothold.

THE BUSINESS OF ART: With support from the California Arts Council, Otis College of Art and Design has completed an analysis of the state's "creative economy," examining the impact of sectors such as the entertainment industry and nonprofit organizations. The report, an expansion of the school's annual assessment of the Los Angeles region, will be released today at 3:30 p.m. at a reception in Santa Monica. State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, plans to hold a hearing on the report next Wednesday.

MAKING THE JUMP: Are California's high school students ready for the transition to college? UC Davis researcher Michal Kurlaender discusses an evaluation of the state's Early Assessment Program, an academic preparation program for high school juniors developed by state education officials and the California State University system. The talks takes place at noon at the UC Center Sacramento on K Street.

INSIDER EXCLUSIVE: Subscribers to the Capitol Alert Insider Edition can get veteran political analyst Tony Quinn's take on key legislative races, as Republicans seek to cut into Democrats' supermajority status this year. In the third of five parts released this week, Quinn and reporter Christopher Cadelago look at key Assembly races in Southern California. You can subscribe to the Insider Edition app for iPad and iPhone.

PHOTO: A customer leaves after using the ATM machine at the Bank of Rio Vista. The Sacramento Bee/Renee C. Byer

February 6, 2014
Dan Walters Daily: Caltrans has lost its way

RP_HIGHWAY_49_SIGN.JPGAs the transportation picture has gotten more complicated, Caltrans no longer knows what it is supposed to do, Dan says.

Have a question you'd like Dan to answer? Post it on our Facebook page.

See other Dan Walters Daily clips here.

PHOTO: California Highway 49 sign. The Sacramento Bee/Randy Pench


Capitol Alert Staff

Amy Chance Amy Chance is political editor for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @Amy_Chance

Dan Smith Dan Smith is Capitol bureau chief for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @DanielSnowSmith

Jim Miller Jim Miller covers California policy and politics and edits Capitol Alert. Twitter: @jimmiller2

David Siders David Siders covers the Brown administration. Twitter: @davidsiders

Christopher Cadelago Christopher Cadelago covers California politics and health care. Twitter: @ccadelago

Laurel Rosenhall Laurel Rosenhall covers the Legislature, the lobbying community and higher education. Twitter: @LaurelRosenhall

Jeremy White Jeremy B. White covers the Legislature. Twitter: @capitolalert

Koseff Alexei Koseff edits Capitol Alert's mobile Insider Edition. Twitter: @akoseff

Dan Walters Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @WaltersBee

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