There are strict rules in California about politicians accepting gifts—strict in the sense that the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) lists 27 clear instances of when a contribution is not a gift, under the heading “Gift Exceptions” (pdf).
One of those “not a gift” gift exceptions are “behests,” donations given to designated charities or organizations recommended by a politician. While state officeholders reported receiving $216,000 worth of gifts and travel payments in 2012, they also directed $6.7 million to favored organizations, according to FPPC documents.
A recently released California Common Cause report, “Gifts, Influence & Power” (pdf), called behests “the least regulated avenue for interest groups to use to garner influence among elected officials.” The author, Phillip Ung, gave an illustration of one “common practice” that is explicitly allowed by the law. A donor can give an unlimited amount of money to a community event, underwriting its basic expenditures while promoting, as headliner, the politician who made the recommendation.
Although some behests might look like campaign contributions, they are not. Otherwise there would be a cap on the expenditure and donors couldn’t remain anonymous by giving less than $5,000. But they can do that.
Sometimes the officeholder has other connections to a particular organization. More than 120 admirers of Governor Jerry Brown have given nearly $3 million at his behest this year, mostly to two charter schools the governor founded and the Bay Area Council, according to the FPPC. Donors include Walmart, AT&T, Bank of America, Comcast, Chevron and Bikram’s Yoga College of India
Contributions to the governor are nearly equal to the entire amount contributed at the behest of other statewide-elected officials, state senators and Assemblymembers combined. Despite the unkind words by Ung about behests, he only recommends that the level for anonymity be lowered to $1,000.
Most of Ung’s attention is on gifts. A $409 French scarf, $400 crystal ducks, a $400 adult three-wheeled scooter, a $349 bronze statute of Ronald Reagan, $337 worth of personalized hot sauces and “tickets, tickets and more tickets.” Around one out of every 7 dollars worth of gifts, $32,000, were for tickets to events ranging from the Los Angeles County Fair to the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament.
Ung says California’s gift laws are the weakest in the nation and proposes the Legislature do something about it. He wants gift limits lowered, travel restrictions tightened, restrictions on lobbyists extended to their clients, and, mostly, timely transparency.