In the Speaker’s Defense

By Garry South

October 27, 2007

Los Angeles Times

have watched with interest as Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez has been pummeled over his use of campaign funds to pay for foreign trips and their related costs. I didn’t accompany Nunez on his travels, and hence don’t know the purpose of all the expenditures. But I do have enough firsthand experience in this area to know that public officials often are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

While serving as communications director for Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste in the late 1980s, I accompanied him on trade missions to Asia, the then-Soviet Union and Canada.

Each time planning commenced for a trade mission, there was an internal debate about how to pay for the trips. Some thought that these trips constituted legitimate government business, and therefore should be paid for out of the governor’s office budget or out of the state Department of Development’s budget. Others recommended raising private funds, especially from companies and individuals who would be included in the governor’s traveling party. Still others argued that, out of an excess of caution, some of the costs should be subsidized by the governor’s campaign committee.

Any way an elected official chooses, he will be castigated by someone, including the media. If the state pays the costs, it’s a “taxpayer-funded junket.” If private funds pay all or part of the cost, it will be labeled a “privately funded boondoggle with rich friends and traveling partners seeking access and favors.” If the campaign account of the officeholder subsidizes the jaunts, then they are “a questionable use of campaign funds” — accompanied by allegations that the entire trip was undertaken mainly for political, not economic development, motives.

I would also argue, in defense of Nunez (and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger too, for that matter), that it is important for California’s high elected officials to show the flag around the globe, given California’s dependence on foreign trade and markets. In 2003, in a misguided fit of budget cutting, the Legislature axed all of the state’s longtime trade offices around the world (with the exception of a privately funded one in, of all places, Armenia). This left the Golden State as one of the very few states with no on-the-ground presence in the major trading capitals of the world, including China and Japan.

Despite public and media skepticism to the contrary, I have been on enough foreign trade missions to know that they are not vacation-like junkets. In some cases, they resemble more a forced march than a week in paradise. On one trip to Hong Kong, we left Columbus, Ohio, at 6 a.m. on a Friday and arrived in Hong Kong at 9:30 Saturday night — only to have to sit down to an elaborate dinner sponsored by Ford Motor Co. that began at 10:30 p.m. I fell asleep in my soup and had to excuse myself. On a trip to Japan, there was a luggage call every morning at 4:30.

Nunez is also more right than wrong on the matter of gifts. It is important to understand that elected officials traveling on official business representing the state are expected to exchange gifts with their hosts. Particularly in Asia and Europe, there are centuries-old protocols involving this process. To more casual Americans, it can seem like a ridiculous amount of ritual involved, down to the order in which gifts are given and to the size of the packages. It’s easy to make sport of the fact that some of these gifts in Nunez’s case were apparently purchased at Louis Vuitton, but that’s a matter of judgment, not legality.

As has been pointed out in articles about Nunez’s spending, state law requires only that expenditures from campaign funds relate “reasonably” to a “political, legislative or governmental purpose.” That provides very broad leeway for public officials to use their campaign funds for a variety of purposes other than running a campaign. What they can’t do is use political contributions to pay for personal things, such as a health-club membership or clothes for a spouse. There have been no allegations that I am aware of that Nunez spent these funds on anything for personal use.

My candid sense is that some people are now piling on out of revenge, envy or because of personal political agendas, and are putting up such a close-their-eyes-and-flail-away ruckus that Nunez’s explanations and defense of his actions are getting lost in the barrage.

The speaker and I have had our differences, but I suggest that everyone step back for a moment. The state Fair Political Practices Commission has agreed to review Nunez’s expenditures from his campaign account to determine whether there were any improprieties. Until this official investigation is completed, I believe that Nunez is entitled to the benefit of the doubt.