California taxpayers billed $40,000 for events
Feb. 25, 2015
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Organizers of last fall's swearing-in celebration for Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon said no taxpayer money was used to put on the event at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, but a review by The Associated Press found taxpayers subsidized more than $25,000 for legislative staff and security to attend.
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins also spent $15,000 from her budget to fly staff members to swearing-in events at the Capitol and in San Diego's Balboa Park, the AP found.
Senate and Assembly expense reports obtained under the Legislative Open Records Act show nearly 30 security and top-level staffers traveled to Los Angeles for de Leon's event while 20 legislative employees traveled to Atkins' events.
Jon Coupal, president of the anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said there are instances when staff needs to travel. A swearing-in is not among them.
"It's not like an inauguration," Coupal said. "The pomp and circumstance for a legislative leader just doesn't make any sense."
The two Republican leaders, Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, and Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen of Modesto, did not hold swearing-in celebrations as minority party leaders, according to their offices. Both declined to comment on the events held by de Leon and Atkins.
Bob Stern, who ran the former government reform-group Center for Governmental Studies and worked as an aide in the Legislature, said as long as taxpayers weren't paying for food and drinks, he thinks the spending is appropriate.
"I have no problem with staffers, particularly flying in California, to attend the swearing-in of a leader," Stern said. "In a sense, I think they almost should be there."
The speaker and the president pro tem are elected to lead the bodies by fellow lawmakers at the beginning of each session. Previous ceremonies took place at the state Capitol and have been relatively low-key, according to the California State Library's research bureau. An exception was former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 1998.
De Leon invited 2,000 guests, including about 200 officeholders, to witness his swearing-in ceremony Oct. 15 at the Disney hall. The celebration included a mariachi band and food trucks, and the invitation called it an "inauguration," language usually reserved for presidents and governors. Villaraigosa used the same description for his event.
The California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation, which receives donations from special interests seeking influence in the Legislature, said it paid the roughly $50,000 tab for de Leon's gathering. Caucus organizers emphasized at the time that no taxpayer money was involved.
But Senate expense receipts showed the secretary of the Senate, Daniel Alvarez, who is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Senate, traveled to de Leon's event, as did de Leon's policy director, budget director, communications staff and his education, environment and other policy consultants.
Those 16 staffers charged $12,000 for hotel, airfare, car rental and related expenses.
The Senate's chief sergeant-at-arms, Debbie Manning, brought a team of a dozen security members to the event, including sergeants whose main responsibility is to provide security at the state Capitol.
Manning declined to comment about the sergeants' expenses, which made up $13,000 of the $25,000 in costs billed to the Senate. She referred questions to de Leon's press staff.
De Leon said the event required added security due to the number of elected officials who attended. He said Senate staff also participated in a policy retreat while there. He said the upper house has reduced overall travel expenses by 12 percent in the last year.
"When it comes to protecting state officials or their constituents, we are not in the habit of second-guessing the security recommendations of the chief sergeant or experts," de Leon said in the statement.
Atkins was sworn in inside the 80-member chamber on May 12. She celebrated with a gospel choir, a gay and lesbian color guard, and her family. Records show seven district staffers flew up for the event at a cost of nearly $3,000 and another $3,200 was spent on program printing.
On June 6, Atkins hosted a community celebration attended by about 450 people. The free event was open to the public and the city of San Diego helped defray the costs by giving her use of the city-owned facility in Balboa Park.
Records show 10 staffers and consultants as well as three sergeants charged a little over $8,000 to staff the event. Another $800 was spent to print programs.
"All the staff was integral to the success of the event," said Atkins' spokesman, John Casey. He said costs were minimized and the only refreshments were cookies and water.