“At the Copa, Copacabana, the hottest spot north of Havana…you’ll fall in love…”
That Barry Manilow lyric was written about a New York nightclub, but some California politicians just might have fallen in love at or with another Copacabana late last year: the beachfront luxury hotel in Rio de Janeiro reputed to be the finest resort in South America.
“For a touch of old-fashioned glamour, nothing compares to the Copacabana Palace Hotel. Everything about it, from the wood-paneled lifts [elevators] to the marble staircases oozes luxury,” reports the London Financial Times in a review of the hotel, one of several ultra-swank palazzos visited by a phalanx of California officials immediately after last fall’s election.
The trip’s roster boasted some of state government’s most powerful individuals: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff Susan Kennedy, Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Energy Commission chair Jackie Pfannnenstiel, Public Utilities Commission executive director Steve Larson and a bipartisan roster of legislators including Republican state Sen. George Runner of Lancaster and his wife, GOP Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, Republican Assemblyman Rick Keene of Chico, Democratic Assemblymen John Laird of Santa Cruz, and Lloyd Levine of Sherman Oaks and Democratic Assemblywoman Lori Saldana of San Diego.
The timing and sponsorship of their South American sojourn, from November 9 to 22, clearly show these influential state policymakers and regulators have learned very little from recent political history.
The dates of their jaunt through Brazil, Argentina and Chile were remarkably similar to those of the “conferences” the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. once held regularly for legislators on Maui. Those were also staged in November, with dozens of legislators enjoying free stays at the luxurious Sheraton Maui – until the press got hold of the details.
Those “conferences” helped make the prison guards union the most influential single interest group in the state for years, leading to labor contracts that now see some correctional officers earning well over $100,000 per year.
The last of those Maui conferences was staged in 2003, just a month after the recall election that brought Schwarzenegger to power on the strength of his promises to rid state government of special interest influences.
This year’s junket came just two days after an election campaign that also centered partly on special interest influences and corruption. The junketeers plainly didn’t worry too much about who paid their way – some of the wealthiest corporations in California, all heavily dependent on state policy decisions.
The big business-funded California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy sponsored this trip. Its directors and officers include executives of Chevron, Shell, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Comcast, Verizon, BHP Billiton, Sempra Energy and power generating companies including Reliant, Mirant and Calpine.
Just in case any lawmakers or regulators on the trip didn’t know who was footing the bills, they could look around at the traveling group and see lobbyists for Chevron, Sempra, Southern California Edison and the California Farm Bureau Federation, among others. In short, this trip reeked of special interests buying face time with key officials and lawmakers.
And lest anyone think the so-called “International Travel Study Project to South America” was all about business, spouses and domestic partners were invited along. There was also an instruction to bring swimsuits and easy proximity to some of the continent’s best golf courses.
Yes, there were also seminars on subjects like ethanol, biodiesel fuels and greenhouse gases, plus discussions of private-public development partnerships and new types of highway toll booths.
It’s to be expected that every politician on the junket would deny that this amounted to a post-election vacation paid for by special interests or that any undue influence could stem from the unfettered access to them that the trip allowed lobbyists.
Why, then, do they suppose the corporations pay for trips like this?
“The average citizen will never be on an even playing field with powerful business interests that spend many thousands of dollars wining and dining and vacationing with government officials like this,” notes Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which disclosed the itinerary and roster for the trip.
The bottom line: Any decisions made by the Energy Commission or the PUC on issues like liquefied natural gas or gasoline pricing or electricity regulation will be suspect as long as the individuals who took this trip remain in office. The same for legislative decisions.
If politicians want the public to believe they’re honest, it’s time for them to get off the gravy train.