Although up-to-date information on gift-giving to California politicians is public record, a former employee at a powerful law firm that specializes in lobbying says the record is incomplete.
Rhonda Smira filed a lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court against her former bosses at Sloat Higgens Jensen & Associates alleging that she was illegally fired and defamed in 2012 when she refused to participate in covering up gifts and donations made to dozens of officeholders.
The officeholders are not named in the lawsuit, but it mentions “11 Senators, 26 Assembly men/women, and various other high-ranking public officials and representatives.” Smira’s lawyer implied they had names to name, but that he didn’t want to tip his hand in preliminary legal pleadings.
Smira accused the firm of assisting Fortune 500 clients in secretly transmitting hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawmakers at fundraisers. The sum is significant compared to the $216,000 officially lavished on travel and gifts that were given to all statewide elected officials, state senators and Assemblymembers last year.
But those donations were restricted by California law that bars legislative lobbyists from giving money directly to an officeholder or facilitating such contributions. There are also limits on gift contributions from lobbyists.
The lawsuit alleges founder Kevin Sloat, a former chief legislative aide to Republican Governor Pete Wilson, hosted elaborate fundraisers at his mansion or the law offices free of charge. In addition to those undeclared nonmonetary campaign contributions, each gathering would rake in between $10,000 and $50,000 for politician du jour. Tickets to sporting events and free golf at a resort were also said to be coin of the realm.
Smira said she was told to record most of these company expenditures as “business expenses” for tax purposes and not ask for receipts from donors. She said she refused and was fired after falsely being accused of theft.
Smira singled out Sloat in the lawsuit against him and his firm. She said he would have her call his 30 “go to” clients for specific events because, unlike Sloat’s more sophisticated clients (who were more narrowly targeted), those on the list “were the clients Sloat saw as unsophisticated and clients who did not ask why they were making contributions to the candidates.” Smira said “his ‘go to’ clients and their campaign contribution budgets were actually ‘his’ to distribute at ‘his’ discretion.”
In the opinion of Smira’s lawyer, they were breaking the law: “Of the hundreds of invitations sent to candidates since early 2000, none met the current disclosure and notification laws set forth by the Fair Political Practices Commission (*FPPC*) regulations.”
Smira played hostess at many of the fundraisers, coordinating activities that included catering and “arranging illegal gifts,” and said she voiced her concerns about the firm’s alleged illegal activities often—for years—before being terminated.
The law firm is the seventh-largest lobbying operation in Sacramento, according to the Los Angeles Times, picking up $4.4 million last year from nearly 50 clients.
One of its partners, Kelly Jensen, used to be chief of staff for Charles Calderon, the former head of both the Assembly and state Senate whose two brothers and a son are or have been in the state Legislature. Brother Ron Calderon, a state senator, is under investigation by the FBI. Charles was fined $18,000 by California‘s Fair Political Practices Commission for 10 campaign finance violations during his bid for state attorney general in 1998.