The money was free and it flew Abel Maldonado around the world: Australia, Africa, Europe - $30,987 in bills, and a single special-interest group supplied every last penny.
Maldonado first went globetrotting back in 1999 when he was an assemblyman. With a bipartisan group of fellow legislators, Maldonado spent two weeks hanging out with farming groups in Spain, studying hydro-electricity in Ireland, and visiting coal-burning power plants in Germany.
- CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
- ABEL MALDONADO, STATE SENATOR: â€˜I have never, ever, ever connected monetary resources with a bill or a special company in my area. For somebody to even suggest that is disappointing.â€™
#The funds for all this voyaging came from a group called the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, or CFEE. And its money came from, among other sources, the stateâ€™s largest energy companies: Southern California Edison. Sempra Energy. PG&E.
Those companies donâ€™t just give CFEE money â€” their directors, vice-presidents, and presidents also make up a large part of CFEEâ€™s board of directors. One of those board members, a vice president at PG&E, went with Maldonado on his trip to Europe. And when Maldonado visited South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia in 2000 and 2002 on similar trips, other industry/board members went along for the ride as well.
But despite what appears to be a very cozy relationship with the stateâ€™s power companies, Maldonado hasnâ€™t shown any bias to that industry when it comes to what he votes on in Sacramento.
That is, until last month.
In mid-February, Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee shocked the county when he proposed an earthquake study bill that could threaten Diablo Nuclear Power Plantâ€™s ability to re-license. It was a radical stance for a San Luis Obispo conservative to take, and Maldonado let his feeling on the matter be known. In local radio and newspaper interviews, he remarked on Blakesleeâ€™s freshman status in the assembly and questioned the legitimacy of the information Blakeslee was using as a basis for the bill.
By March, Maldonadoâ€™s stance hadnâ€™t changed: â€œThe last thing I want is to have a power plant that the state has to shut down. I think the timing [of the bill] is poor,â€? he said.
The question is, is Maldonado speaking for his friends in San Luis Obispo County or is he speaking for his friends in the energy industry?
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Patrick Mason, the president of CFEE, loves to talk about how nonpartisan his group is. He describes CFEE as a coalition of business, labor, and environmental groups who work on water, air, energy, and infrastructure issues. â€œBig-picture stuff,â€? he said.
Mostly the group puts on industry-funded conferences around California. But once a year, CFEE hand picks a few assembly members or state senators and points to a spot on the globe.
One of Maldonadoâ€™s aides, Tom Kise, compared the trips to trying to describe the Grand Canyon to someone when you could just take that person there.
â€œYouâ€™ll never know what strip mining is in California. Youâ€™ll never see what effect badly run coal-burning power plants have. Youâ€™ve got to go someplace to see what effect they have on the environment,â€? he said.
Maldonado said he loved the excursions he went on. He raved about how much he learned; all the industry, regulatory, and legislative contacts he made; and said he wished everyone in the state legislature could do what he did.
But despite the CFEEâ€™s green-sounding name and its presidentâ€™s insistence on environmental goals, a close look at the board of directors reveals a different picture.
Of the 52 board members, only two hail from environmental organizations.
Of the remaining 50, a few are lawyers and the rest are bigwigs from the state and nationâ€™s largest farming, telecommunication, and energy companies.
As a nonprofit, CFEE canâ€™t legally push for any specific political agenda. But a lobby group called the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance thatâ€™s linked to CFEE (the two groups share the same board members) has a very strong pro-industry stance.
For instance, in a 2004 letter to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the lobby group asked government regulators to â€œtake into account the â€¦ impact on the creation and retention of jobs and business climate as they develop and consider options â€¦ to environmental justice problems.â€?
And the two groups donâ€™t just share common goals, they share funding sources as well: In 2003, for example, PG&E gave CFEE $6,000 and the lobby group $11,999.93.
Because of that strong backing from the energy industry, Doug Heller, the executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, questioned CFEEâ€™s intent as it shuttles politicians around the globe.
He pointed to news stories that came out in 2004 when CFEE took four of the governorâ€™s lop-level appointees on a trip to Australia that included a stay at Sydneyâ€™s lavish Four Seasons Hotel and a day on a luxury yacht.
â€œIf lawmakers needed so desperately to travel around the world to learn about [another countryâ€™s] energy system, then they should propose a plan to their budgeting department and get the taxpayersâ€™ money for it,â€? Heller said.
â€œIf itâ€™s not good enough for the government dime, then the politicians should know better than to take these â€” theyâ€™re more than gifts. I donâ€™t know how to describe them. Gifts is too small a word.â€?
CFEEâ€™s Mason harshly dismissed Hellerâ€™s group when confronted with that analysis: â€œThey have no idea who we are. Theyâ€™ve never been to one of our events. Iâ€™ve never met one of these folks. They have no idea. I donâ€™t know how to respond to that.â€?
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So back to Blakesleeâ€™s bill: Is Maldonadoâ€™s negative response the result of a conflict of interest?
Maldonadoâ€™s answer to that comes quickly and strongly: â€œAbsolutely not.â€?
â€œIâ€™m not sitting here telling you Iâ€™m in love with PG&E,â€? he said. â€œDo you think weâ€™re all jumping for joy that weâ€™ve got a nuclear power plant in our backyard? No!â€?
But, he continued, Diablo and PG&E are a part of the countyâ€™s â€œfamilyâ€? and he doesnâ€™t want to see the area lose the plantâ€™s 1,400 jobs or the millions it pays into the SLO County budget every year.
â€œPG&E is an important part of the community,â€? he said.
Because of that, Maldonado thinks lawmakers should be supporting Diabloâ€™s security efforts, not questioning its seismic stability. As an example, he pointed to a bill â€” which has its origin in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not PG&E â€” he just introduced that would protect nuclear power plant security forces from homicide charges if they shoot and kill an intruder.
And when heâ€™s pressed if he thinks the public might think his response to Blakeslee is due to his trips, or his donors, or his traveling companions, Maldonadoâ€™s voice loses its normally friendly tone as he snaps his answer:
â€œI have never, ever, ever connected monetary resources with a bill or a special company in my area. For somebody to even suggest that is disappointing,â€? he said.
â€œThe people of San Luis Obispo know who I am. They have faith in me and I have faith in them. I hope the day they feel thereâ€™s been a conflict of interest, the people of my county bring it up to me.â€?
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at email@example.com
Money to run, to dine, and to fly
In his three races for state offices, Abel Maldonado received $5.4 million in contributions from the Republican Party, private donors, corporations, and lobby groups from the ag, construction, insurance, technology, and Indian gaming industries. Compared to all those other donations, energy industry contributions have been just a tiny drop in a very big bucket.
However, those energy companies have been giving in other ways: Since 1999, Maldonado has been taken to dinner by PG&E more than almost any other group that have given him gifts. In fact, gifts from the energy industry and one of its special-interest groups â€” California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE) â€” account for the vast majority of presents Maldonado has received.
And while CFEE was giving Maldonado money, PG&E â€” and other large California energy companies like Southern California Edison â€” were giving money to CFEE. Hereâ€™s how it broke down over the years:
What PG&E gave to CFEE
2003: This year, the only year for which New Times could obtain data, PG&E gave $6,000 to CFEE and $11,999.93 to CFEEâ€™s lobby group, the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance.
What CFEE gave to Maldonado
Trip to Australia and New Zealand: 11/07/02 - 11/21/02; $9,669.57
Dinner: 3/2/01; $97.47
Trip to South Africa: 11/09/00 - 11/22/00; $12,062
Trip to Europe: 11/04/99 - 11/18/99; $9,060
Dinner: 5/2/99; $85.95
Campaign contributions from CFEE energy members, 1999-2004
Sempra Energy: $15,700
*In 2002, Maldonadoâ€™s campaign gave $2,500 to the Enron Ex-Employee Fund.
If itâ€™s legal, whatâ€™s the big deal?
Philip Fetzer, a Cal Poly political science professor, had a few ideas on why Maldonadoâ€™s relationship with the energy industry might get him into trouble, regardless of whether heâ€™d actually done anything wrong.
Fetzer wouldnâ€™t talk about the specifics of Maldonadoâ€™s situation, but he did offer a political axiom about conflicts of interest: Perception is reality. In other words, people will always draw conclusions based on a lawmakerâ€™s activities that seem connected with political positions.
â€œWhether or not there is a genuine conflict of interest, the perception is that there is one,â€? Fetzer said. â€œAnd thatâ€™s what the public official has to address. They have to understand how the public will interpret things regardless of the validity of what theyâ€™re doing.â€?
But in the current political world, itâ€™s inevitable that legislators will interact with corporations and special interests. How does a politician play the game, do their job, and still reassure the public that theyâ€™re honest people?
Fetzer sees the difficulty and he offered one piece of advice: If youâ€™re a politician, go out of your way to show that youâ€™re getting information from all sources, not just ones with business ties.
â€œSome do that,â€? he said. â€œSome seem less sensitive to that.â€?
â€” Abraham Hyatt