Watchdog: Follow the Money

Lobbying firm fined $133K for gifts to California lawmakers

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Associated Press,Watchdog,California,Lobbying,Follow the Money,Jerry Brown

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's political watchdog agency on Monday levied the largest lobbying fine in its history against a firm that violated campaign-contribution laws, mostly related to expensive parties thrown for top political leaders including Gov. Jerry Brown and dozens of state lawmakers.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission's $133,500 fine against Sloat Higgins Jensen & Associates comes against one of the capital's most influential lobbying firms. It represents a long list of high-profile clients, including the San Francisco 49ers, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the California State University chancellor's office, the cities of Anaheim and San Diego, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The commission said Kevin Sloat, the firm's principal officer, hosted fundraisers spanning back to 2009 at his Sacramento house during which he provided illegal non-monetary gifts that included catered food, drinks and cigars. California law prohibits lobbyists from making campaign contributions to officials whose agencies they lobby, but they are allowed to host political fundraisers if the total cost of the event is less than $500.

According to the commission's summary of its investigation, Sloat said he believed he was following the law by keeping his own share of expenses below $500. But the law applies to all services and gifts offered at such parties, including those provided by vendors.

The commission said 34 state lawmakers, including Republican and Democratic leaders of both houses, attended the parties. Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman also hosted fundraisers at Sloat's home.

Several lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg received warning letters from the state watchdog agency about the illegal contributions, attorneys for the lawmakers said. Stephen Kaufman, an attorney for Perez, said his client's campaign paid for the costs of a 2011 fundraiser at Sloat's home and wasn't aware of other expenses paid for by the lobbyist.

The agency confirmed that in its investigative summary, saying the politicians implicated in the investigation were not aware that Sloat had made illegal contributions. It also said those who attended had properly reported other expenses on their state disclosure forms.

"There was no evidence that any of the candidates or elected officers who benefited from the fundraisers were notified or made aware that they received contributions," the commission said in its report on the investigation.

The commission declined to say how many officials received warning letters because they have 10 days to contest the letters. Representatives for Republican leaders say they haven't received a letter yet. An attorney for the governor and lieutenant governor has not responded to requests for comment.

Separately, the firm arranged for gifts that far exceeded the allowable $10-a-month limit, including 49ers and NBA tickets. Recipients included former assemblymen Jeff Miller (R-Corona) and Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) along with Debra Gravert, chief of staff for Rep. Jim Frazier (D-Oakley).

A spokesman for the lobbying firm, Stevan Allen, said in a statement that it acknowledged it "failed in our obligations to be as vigilant as possible" and had cooperated with investigators. The firm said it designated a compliance officer to prevent future violations.

The commission's board is scheduled to vote on the fine Feb. 20.

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