SACRAMENTO — California's elected state officials have raised more than $11 million in unlimited contributions over the last two years for charities, community groups, inauguration ceremonies and other political activities, according to figures released by the state's campaign watchdog.
The money frequently has come from corporations, Indian tribes, labor unions and other organizations that lobby at the Capitol. Critics say that raises the possibility of conflicts of interest.
"It does make one think about why are these companies giving money to charities. Is it really out of the goodness of their heart, or is it that they know they will get something in return from the legislator requesting the donation?" said Christina Lokke, policy advocate for California Common Cause.
The so-called "behested payments" are contributions politicians request or recommend for charities or a legislative or political purpose. They are not considered campaign contributions or gifts and are not covered by the limits on those payments.
Officials have been required to report behested payments that total $5,000 or more a year since 1998, but until Tuesday someone who wanted to look at the reports had to go to the Fair Political Practices Commission office in Sacramento.
Agency begins posting reports on Web
The FPPC decided to post the reports on its Web site starting Tuesday "because we believe it's important for the public to be made aware of these types of payments," said Roman Porter, a spokesman for the commission.
The first installment covers reports filed in 2006 and 2007. The FPPC plans to add reports covering previous years and update the Web site with future reports as they come in, Porter said.
The reports showed that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raised more than $2.8 million for his 2007 inauguration celebration in contributions of up to $200,000.
Schwarzenegger voluntarily disclosed donors to his inauguration committee in January, but the FPPC list indicates exactly how much companies and individuals contributed. Schwarzenegger had only listed donors in two categories, those who gave at least $15,000 and those who gave at least $50,000.
Those donors did not receive favored treatment, said Julie Soderlund, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger's campaign fundraising activities.
"The governor makes decisions based on the merits and what he believes is best for California," she said.
Jerry Brown directs donors to Oakland schools
Attorney General Jerry Brown raised nearly $2.3 million for the Oakland School for the Arts and the Oakland Military Institute with donations running as high as $250,000.
Brown said he helped start both schools when he was mayor and said they need corporate donations to help offset costs to refurbish their buildings.
"If we don't raise money, the schools don't exist," Brown said.
He said the schools get money from foundations, individuals, companies and grants from Congress.
"I was raising money before I became attorney general, and I don't think the fact I became attorney general means I should stop supporting the school," he said. "I think that would be unfair to the students. They depend on outside support."
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, was able to generate more than $1 million for a variety of groups and causes, including the Breast Cancer Fund, the University of California, Davis Foundation and the Oakland Parents Literacy Project.
Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, the Compton Democrat who is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, tapped contributors for more than $640,000 for the Legislative Black Caucus Foundation. The organization sponsors programs to aid and develop black leaders.
Benevolent partnership or unhealthy corporate link?
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, raised more than $364,000 for activities that include a toy drive, a youth conference, a "childhood obesity event," literacy and scholarship programs and a screening of Michael Moore's "Sicko," a documentary about the failings of the American health care system.
"Like every community leader, the speaker partners with dozens of charities in his district to enrich the lives of those in need," Nunez spokesman Steve Maviglio said.
"The only ones benefiting from these charitable contributions are the 7-year-old kids in his district who receive toys and scholarships they'd never get otherwise, and it's ludicrous to suggest that donors get any other benefit other than becoming better corporate citizens."
But Tracy Westen, chief executive officer of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based political think tank, said the behested payments create an unhealthy connection between public officials and corporate donors.
"If you're a company and you have legislation pending, and the speaker calls you and recommends you make a donation to a charity, what do you do? Say No?" Westen said. "It is certainly logical to conclude there is some influence gained when there is a contribution to a charity that is near and dear to a legislator's heart."
He said the contributions are an end-run around the state's campaign finance law.
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