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Stricter Rules on Political Gifts Considered

The Fair Political Practices Commission wants to tighten disclosure requirements and could ban many contributions altogether.

California's political watchdog agency is drafting tougher
disclosure rules for gifts accepted by elected officials and could ban
many of them altogether for statewide office-holders.

If the Fair Political Practices Commission adopts the
proposals, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could be in jeopardy of losing
free overseas trips on luxury jets leased by a taxpayer-subsidized
nonprofit, which is linked to the California Chamber of Commerce.

Last month, The Times reported that Schwarzenegger's office had
avoided fully disclosing payments of $1.7 million by the nonprofit, the
California State Protocol Foundation, for the governor's jets, hotel
suites and support staff.

At the same time, the foundation generally has refused to
release the names of its donors, who enjoy the same charitable tax
write-offs as supporters of the American Red Cross and soup kitchens.
Tax laws do not require the group to reveal its contributors.

Schwarzenegger has not reported the foundation travel payments
on his disclosure forms because he claims the gifts are made to his
office, rather than to him personally. Advocates for open government
have denounced that position as a ruse, and contend that the
foundation's corporate backers pay for the trips to curry favor with
Schwarzenegger.

"The policies have really been abused," said Bob Stern,
president of the Center for Governmental Studies and co-author of the
law that created the commission. "Why are people giving gifts? They're
giving gifts for one reason -- to influence the public official."

Commission spokesman Roman Porter said the panel hopes to
tighten regulations that determine which gifts should be publicly
reported as personal ones. It also is considering requiring full
disclosure of all gifts, including on the commission's website, Porter
said.

Now, gifts to the governor's office -- such as payments for his
Gulfstream jet -- are merely recorded on internal memos, which in the
past have often lacked dollar amounts..

"The commission is examining ways to provide greater clarity,"
Porter said. "The commission is also looking at further clarifying what
gifts are appropriate and allowed under state law to agencies, public
officials and elected officials."

In addition, The Times has learned, the panel is weighing
whether to prohibit gifts to an agency from being passed on to
high-ranking elected and appointed officials. That would directly
target the jets and suites that the protocol foundation donates and
Schwarzenegger uses.

Porter would not discuss the possible ban on such pass-along
gifts. Commission Chairman Ross Johnson, who has been pushing for
reforms since Schwarzenegger appointed him early last year, declined an
interview request.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the office had no
comment on "any unannounced, proposed regulations... We'll continue to
follow the reporting and disclosures rules set down by the FPPC."

The commission already has begun stiffening disclosure rules
for the use of campaign cash. That came in response to Times
revelations that Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) has
spent large sums on lavish travel and purchases at swank retailers such
as Louis Vuitton in Paris without showing how they might be related to
state business.

California Common Cause's policy advocate, Christina Lokke,
said a crackdown on gifts is overdue. "Any time the governor or another
statewide officer receives a gift from any entity, you have to wonder
what the motivation is," she said.

Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and
Consumer Rights, agreed, saying that if the panel "strips away the
ability of the chamber to put the governor on a private jet, that's
real valuable. That's a strong statement."

He said gifts to the state's elected officials have become "a hidden economy."

Porter said the proposals would be reviewed over the next
several weeks. A first step would be to determine whether the
commission could impose them without the Legislature changing the law,
he said.
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Contact the author at: paul.pringle@latimes.com