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Special interests gave money, gifts to new Senate GOP leader

California Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff is seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy of www.BobHuffSenate.com)

January 6, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Behind the legislative record of newly chosen Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff is a host of special interests that have funded his campaigns and given him expensive gifts.

Last year, for example, the California Dental Association spent $124 to send Huff to a Josh Groban concert, the day after giving him a $1,700 donation. AT&T, meanwhile, gave Huff a ticket to see Eric Clapton last March, and PG&E spent $146 on dinner for him at Morton's steakhouse in Sacramento, according to lobbying records. Huff attended these events with other legislators.

Huff, who represents parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, served in the state Assembly from 2004 until 2008, when he was elected to the Senate. Along the way, his biggest campaign contributors were a developer for whom his wife has worked, a casino-owning Indian tribe and the tobacco company formerly known as Philip Morris, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Huff, who touts his pro-business stance, had a perfect record in 2011 of voting in agreement with the California Chamber of Commerce.

Huff did not respond to requests for comment.

After being elected Senate Republican leader by his colleagues this week, Huff told reporters that he would strive to "get people back to work."

"We believe a smaller government is a more responsive government," he said. "And we believe energizing the private sector to create jobs actually pays for the revenues to support the services we want."

Republicans and Democrats alike commonly accept gifts like concert tickets and fancy dinners from special interests. The dental association, for example, also gave the gift of Groban's silky voice to Republican Sen. Bill Emmerson and Democratic Assembly members Ben Hueso, Betsy Butler, Marty Block and Rich Gordon.

The dental association also gave Huff $14,300 in campaign contributions over the years. The association's donations are given to "elected officials who show a level of interest in oral health care issues and are interested in our perspective on those issues," said spokeswoman Cathy Mudge.

Members of Huff's staff also received gifts last year, including $238 in concert tickets and suite expenses at Power Balance Pavilion from oil company BP America.

The gifts are perfectly legal; legislators can receive up to $420 in gifts from any one source per year.

But campaign finance expert Bob Stern said the gifts can buy influence.

"The dental association and AT&T don't send me on trips to concerts, and they don't send constituents either," Stern said. "They want to curry favor. If it didn't work, they wouldn't be doing it."

Stern said the gift limit should be lower, like the $10-per-month limit for gifts from registered lobbyists.

Sacramento lobbyist Chris Micheli, who took Huff to a $10 breakfast last year, disagreed.

"It's unimaginable to me that an elected official is going to be unduly swayed having received tickets to a concert," he said. "If they were, we would have far more significant problems to worry about."

Micheli said critics perpetuate false stereotypes that politicians are up for sale.

"It's always easy to cast aspersions on people's characters, but the vast majority of elected officials ... are honorable, ethical and hardworking officials," Micheli said.

Huff was named a 2011 Legislator of the Year by the League of California Cities for his fight to save local redevelopment agencies, which were abolished by the Legislature. Huff, however, came under criticism because his wife simultaneously worked for a big developer benefiting from redevelopment funding.

The developer, Majestic Realty, led by billionaire Ed Roski, is Huff's biggest campaign contributor, giving $67,850 since 2004. Huff abstained from voting on a 2009 bill that waived environmental review requirements for a Majestic project to build a football stadium in the city of Industry.

The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, which runs a casino and resort in Temecula, gave Huff $21,600 over the years. Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, also gave $21,600.

The American Lung Association in California calls on legislators to refuse money from the tobacco industry, said policy manager Justin Garrett. The donations flowing to politicians like Huff, Garrett said, show that "tobacco companies still have a strong influence inside the Capitol."

David Sutton, an Altria spokesman, said in an e-mail, "Our approach to political contributions is to support candidates who understand the issues that are important to Altria and its operating companies."

Read more California investigative reports at CaliforniaWatch.com.