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Following Scandals, California Legislators Pass Ethics Reform Bills

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – California lawmakers marked the end of the legislative session early Saturday by approving two political reform bills aimed at addressing a string of scandals, including the arrest of two state senators on federal corruption charges.

Political transparency, gift-giving, and cozy relationships between lawmakers and special interests came under scrutiny this year. Prominent lobbying firm Sloat Higgins Jensen & Associates was fined $133,500 in February for hosting illegal fundraisers for the state’s top elected officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders of both parties.

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Weeks later, Democratic Sens. Leland Yee, of San Francisco, and Ron Calderon, of Montebello, were arrested in separate cases, with allegations of swapping clout for campaign contributions.

Amid the arrests, a Senate ethics task force released a package of bills to place restrictions on lobbyists and increase disclosure. SB1442 by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, would increase the frequency of detailed campaign spending reports from twice a year to quarterly. It was the last of the reform bills considered by the Legislature.

Separately, SB831 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would ban elected officials from requesting payments on their behalf to nonprofit organizations run by family members, a tactic sometimes used in place of campaign contributions. It also places limits on spending campaign cash for personal purposes, such as vacations, gym memberships, utility bills and gifts to family members.

Hill’s original proposal was more sweeping, including capping annual travel expenses paid by donors at $5,000 and banning the use of campaign money to pay the legal costs that accrue from fighting criminal charges.

Both bills now head to the governor’s desk following early morning votes with no discussion in each of the legislative chambers. They could not be heard until Saturday because of a waiting period required for legislation that would change the state Political Reform Act, created by a voter-approved initiative in 1974.

A third campaign disclosure bill initially set for an early Saturday vote was pulled after its author announced he did not have enough support for it. SB52 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would have required disclosure of the main financial contributors to mailers and TV and radio commercials related to ballot initiatives.

Other ethics proposals introduced following the scandals failed this session, including a bill creating whistleblower protections for legislative staff and a fundraising blackout during budget negotiations and key votes.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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