The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

July 9, 2010
State officials fly free - courtesy of corporate nonprofit

By law, corporations are forbidden from giving gifts worth more than $420 to state officials.

But when gifts arrive via a corporate-funded non-profit group, the sky is literally the limit.

One year ago this month, The Bee reported that top state officials, legislators and business executives have regularly fanned out across the globe on yearly, lavish "study travel projects" trips paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a non-profit funded by major corporations, including Chevron, PG&E and Southern California Edison.

That story documented stays at the five-star beachfront Copacabana Palace hotel in Rio de Janeiro and a safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and cited concerns of current and former state officials who went on the trips about the propriety of meeting with corporate executives behind closed doors.

Three months after The Bee story, state officials and business executives were off again on another foundation-funded trip, this one to China, according to state records dug up by citizen-journalist Jim Rothstein, through the California Public Records law.

Those records show the purpose of the trip was to investigate Chinese energy projects, low-carbon vehicles and broadband technologies -- but that it included plenty of downtime, including a stay at the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai plus sight-seeing and nature tours.
According to the documents Rothstein obtained, trip participants included members of the California Energy Commission, the Public Utilities Commission, State Senate and Assembly as well as executives from Chevron, Covanta Energy Corp., AES North America Pacific, Shell Oil, Calpine Corp., RRI Energy, Southern California Edison and two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists.

The cost of the two-week trip for Energy Commissioner Jeffrey Byron (pictured at right) was estimated at $12,200, including $6,350 for round-trip airfare from San Francisco to Shanghai.

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