California lawmakers were globetrotters before pandemic

SACRAMENTO, Calif (AP) — It was a different era for California lawmakers before the coronavirus pandemic: business-class flights to Japan, stays at 5-star hotels and dinners with local politicians in the name of promoting economic ties.

In February, the Japanese government paid to host six California Assembly members in Tokyo and Fukushima. Between city tours, officials were briefed on Olympics preparedness for the now-postponed event and were wowed by the country’s transit system.

Being a California legislator brings the perks of traveling the world, thanks often to the largess of groups that critics say are usually looking to sway lawmakers to their causes. The cost of the trips must be recorded by lawmakers on financial disclosure forms as “gifts,” but they are not required to specify many details about the trips' purposes.

Advocacy groups, nonprofit organizations and foreign governments in 2019 paid more than $550,000 on trips outside the lower 48 states for members of the state Assembly and Senate, according to an Associated Press review of the most recently available financial disclosure forms.

More than half the California lawmakers went on those trips to destinations including China, Hawaii, Israel, Mexico, Norway and South Korea, the AP review found.

The lawmakers defend the global travel as necessary for representatives of the world’s fifth-largest economy. But critics note the lawmakers are almost always accompanied by lobbyists, making the junkets good opportunities for influence peddling and promotion.

“Special interests go along on these trips, and special interests skew the trips to benefit themselves," said Bob Stern, the co-author of California’s Political Reform Act, adding that lawmakers get fun freebies. “They'll have the lectures in the morning and the golf in the afternoon.”

Sen. Robert Hertzberg, a Democrat from Van Nuys, took the most money for trips among lawmakers in 2019, reporting nearly $27,500 in travel gifts, AP's review showed.

He went to China three times and was among a group of legislators who traveled to Switzerland and France, paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and Economy.

“When you represent nearly a million people in a state that is leading the world on climate change, clean energy, and a host of other issues, working internationally is essential if you want to get things done,” Hertzberg said in a statement about the trips.

Lawmakers also traveled to the Portuguese capitol of Lisbon and to the Azores, the county's cluster of tiny, lush Atlantic Ocean volcanic islands — funded by by the California Portuguese American Coalition and the local Azores government. The legislative travelers — Democrats Rudy Salas of Bakersfield and Sen. Henry Stern of Calabasas — defended the trip as worthwhile.

The AP's review did not include trips by lawmakers around the mainland U.S. for outings like policy retreats in California and conferences in Washington, D.C.

Lawmakers often say that having outside groups pay for their travel means no expenses for taxpayers, but that isn’t always the case. The nine-night trip to Japan in mid-February included three traveling guards who protected the legislators and work for the Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms. That cost the public $10,650 in expenses on top of the guards' salaries, according to receipts obtained through a public records request.

In addition to the legislators' travel gifts listed in their disclosures, the Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms spent more than $122,000 on “staff travel” from December 2018 to the end of May 2020, according to publicly available expenditure reports. It was unclear how much of that travel was for trips with lawmakers.

The Assembly has not provided documents about the details and costs of the traveling guards' trips in response to a records request from the AP.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan declined in a statement to say how much it paid for the six Democrats for their Japan trip. Legislators are required to report gifts at the end of each year, including when organizations pay for their airfare, hotel and other travel expenses. Lawmakers have not reported the costs yet, which were not included in the AP's review.

Beyond requirements that the lawmakers provide basic trip details including who paid and where they went, the law leaves it up to lawmakers to provide more information. Democratic Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, of Orinda, logged a $4,000 gift from the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “international round trip - business first class” tickets.

But most reports of gifts on disclosure forms are vague. Dozens of members checked a box titled “Made a Speech/Participated in a Panel” and some entries had no description, making it unclear what the donor paid for.

A bipartisan trip to Israel was last year's most expensive overseas voyage for lawmakers at $154,600. The Koret Foundation, a Bay Area group that pushes for stronger U.S.-Israel ties, and Jewish Foundation of Greater Los Angeles paid travel expenses for 16 lawmakers last November and December.

But the elimination of travel in the pandemic may have long-lasting effects.

“I think we’re learning from living in a pandemic that a lot of travel isn’t necessary and you can do a lot of things by Zoom," said Jessica Levinson, a professor of government and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

The California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a nonprofit group that connects politicians to business and union leaders to discuss environmental and other policy issues, funded a third of the trips in 2019, spending nearly $180,000, according to lawmakers' financial disclosures. The foundation is funded by the groups on its board, including labor unions, utility companies and corporations.

The group last year took lawmakers from both parties on trips to Mexico City, Vancouver, Zurich and Marseilles, France. Its president, Jay Hansen, rejects any notion that the trips are business vacations.

“It’s a working trip,” said Hansen, who recently cancelled a trip to Portugal. “We’re learning and meeting from early in the morning and late at night."

The Japan trip was one of the last before the pandemic grounded travel and forced the Legislature to suspend its business for the first time in 158 years.

Between Feb. 8 and 15, lawmakers spent six nights at the Hotel New Otani Tokyo, which carries Forbes’ “verified luxury” label and has a 400-year-old Japanese garden and 38 restaurants.

Its organizer, Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi of Torrance, at the time sought to combine public and private funding to open a California economic trade office in Japan, but his office said that effort is now on hold.

“Our commitment to continue to strengthen ties between California and Japan made it a very worthwhile trip,” Muratsuchi said in February.

Stern, who co-wrote the ethics law, said lawmakers should travel but believes the public should pay: “That makes the trips also much less luxurious.”