SACRAMENTO -- With no opponent last year, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla glided through the election season. But the Martinez Democrat spent campaign money as if she were fighting for her political life.
In burning through $407,000 of her donors' money in 2012, Bonilla took a half-dozen flights in and out of California, including a trip to Maui to be wined and dined by lobbyists. And she held dozens of lunches and dinners -- described in spending reports as "campaign strategy" meetings -- across the state, 62 in all. The tab: $11,567.
Bonilla was hardly alone in blurring the line between personal and professional uses of her campaign donations, an examination by this newspaper shows. Yet she and her colleagues can expect their spending sprees to go unchallenged.
It's a glaring weakness of California's campaign-finance reporting system, making it ripe for abuse: It's hard to verify whether the expenses of Bonilla and other politicians and office-seekers are legitimate. The law is vague, saying candidates can dip into their treasuries for anything with a political, legislative or governmental purpose. In addition, there are only minimal requirements when it comes to reporting -- saying how many people ate at a restaurant, the cost and location. And few questions are raised if those details are missing.
"We would like to see campaign spending regulated at a higher threshold so that the money is actually spent on campaigns and not used as slush funds," said Phillip Ung, a lobbyist for Common Cause, an organization that advocates for greater transparency in politics.
The state Franchise Tax Board and Fair Political Practices Commission conduct random audits on about 10 percent of the campaign finance forms candidates file with the Secretary of State's Office. But the tax board and FPPC, the state's political watchdog agency, focus mostly on egregious violations of the law, allowing many potential violations to slip by. And the Legislature has little interest in fixing a system that allows its members to treat themselves to expensive meals and trips, often gaining access to the powerful and connected.
Trips to far-flung, exotic destinations are increasingly commonplace. Former state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, last year spent $6,198 on a trip to Turkey, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and London. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, spent $13,711 on two trips that took him to Moscow, London, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong.
"I know we get criticized for it, but we don't use public funds, there's no international quid pro quo, and it helps my understanding of different issues like high-speed rail," DeSaulnier said. "I understand that people think it's elitist, that it's something we're taking advantage of -- and I guess I enjoy the trips. But this makes me a better person, more knowledgeable about the global economy we live in."
Simitian agreed. Such trips "make us better legislators" by gaining a greater understanding of other cultures, said Simitian, who recently returned to his old job as a Santa Clara County supervisor.
Last year, former Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, was term-limited and had no election, but she pulled $329,252 out of her campaign kitty, which she says was necessary to lay the groundwork for a 2014 run for the state Board of Equalization.
She took more than 30 airplane trips, mostly in California. In addition, Ma doled out $44,268 for travel, lodging and meal expenses for Bob Twomey, her district director. But few details about Twomey's trips are provided in Ma's campaign reports, which don't say whom he traveled with, where he went and for what purpose.
Twomey told this newspaper the money was spent to fly nearly 200 interns around the state to attend political events, a group that he said was dubbed the "Ma Squad."
But when asked to show receipts for the expenditures, Twomey balked.
"I'm not sure that's required," Twomey said. "These are all legitimate expenses. You've got to feed them. Is there a way to verify? As far as doing additional disclosure, I'm not sure anybody is willing to do that."
Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, spent $1,829 on a Maui trip to attend the Pacific Policy Research Foundation conference, a weeklong retreat set up by lobbyists and big contributors to lavish luxury on legislators. She also spent $1,524 for a trip to Orlando, Fla., where she attended a five-day National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference with her husband and son. They stayed at a Disney World hotel.
"The trip was for educational purposes, and she wanted her son to be with her, so her husband accompanied her so he could baby-sit him," said Linda Rapattoni, Campos' spokeswoman, who added that "any expense paid for her husband and son were paid with personal funds."
Unless complaints of potential abuse are brought to the attention of the FPPC by the media or others, the expenses generally go unscrutinized.
The FPPC has 30 staff members in its enforcement unit, overseeing the campaign spending of thousands of elected officials and office-seekers, so its ability to track the abusers is limited, said Ung of Common Cause. And under FPPC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, the agency has placed a stronger emphasis on investigating larger cases -- such as the fraud case of Democratic treasurer Kinde Durkee and last fall's anonymous $11 million donation from secret out-of-state groups to a pair of ballot initiative campaigns.
Ravel indicated she wasn't sure whether sifting through restaurant and hotel receipts would be a good use of the FPPC's time. "You could be getting so much volume and requiring so much detail to get at a couple of scofflaws," she said.
But Bob Stern, a former top FPPC official who helped write California's original campaign finance regulations in 1974, argues that legislators and candidates should at the least be required to say not only how many people are attending a meal or fundraiser, but also who attended.
"You can't require them to record a conversation," Stern said. "So I guess I'd say, 'Who are you with? Are you with your wife or husband, or are you with your consultant? If you had a fundraiser, who gave to you and how much?'"
Referring to Assemblywoman Bonilla's "campaign strategy" lunches and dinners despite the fact that she ran unopposed, Stern said: "Clearly, 62 meals is a lot for a year. I'd question it."
In an interview, Bonilla said she was active in the campaigns for Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-hike measure, and to defeat Proposition 32, the measure that would have curbed labor's political clout. She said she also helped out in other candidates' races.
The weekly meals at such establishments as the Salted Pig in Riverside and the Shady Lady Saloon in Sacramento "was the form of campaigning I engaged in," Bonilla said. "In this line of work, that's where a lot of meetings take place. You can't do them in your office, and most people are available to you in a meal."
Besides the trip to Maui, Bonilla also flew to legislative conferences in Monterey; San Diego; Pasadena; Portland, Ore.; Dallas; and Charlotte, N.C.
She said her Hawaii trip, at the lobbyist-sponsored Pacific Policy Research conference -- the same trip she and her husband had taken the previous year -- was to study cap-and-trade, the federal health care law and regulatory issues. In all, Bonilla used $3,706 from her campaign funds to attend the weeklong affair.
"It was certainly an enjoyable trip to Hawaii, but the actual time spent in conference was very substantive, and it was information I valued receiving," Bonilla said. "My choice was not to spend taxpayer dollars."
Not that she had much of a choice. State law prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars on trips out of state.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Twitter.com/ssharmon.
Source: California Fair Political Practices Commission