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Back in February, while gas prices were soaring and radio talk-show host Roger Hedgecock was railing against big oil, a group of San Diego city councilmembers and their aides traveled to Long Beach for a firsthand look at the situation -- courtesy of Arco, the giant oil company. The tab for the field trip, including catered breakfast, boat excursions to Arco's off-loading complex, and full-course dinner with Arco Products Co. president Roger Truitt, came to $100 a head, with transportation, breakfast, lunch, and a $10 "keepsake," according to Arco.

Arco's guests included councilwomen Valerie Stalling's and Christine Kehoe. Council staffers who joined the tour included Chris Cameron of the office of Councilman Harry Mathis, Michael Wilson from George Stevens's office, and Byron Wear's staffer Rudy Alvar, according to lobbyist disclosure records on file with the city.

Arco is just one of the dozens of companies and wealthy individuals with special interests to plead at San Diego's city hall and before the county board of supervisors who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Everything from European trips to free lunches, to bottles of wine, to Chargers and Padres games have been lavished on local elected officials and their staff members. The collective tab for the care and feeding of this free-lunch bunch -- no doubt passed on to the customers of the businesses that pay for the freebies -- extends easily into the six figures.

While most rank-and-file city employees pay for their own lunches, dinners, Padres tickets, and nightclub hopping, many inhabitants of the city council's plush tenth-floor suites regularly dine with lobbyists willing to ingratiate themselves with those who can make or break their real estate project or city contract. And the trend is increasing. Following the examples of sports moguls Alex Spanos and John Moores -- who many believe purchased their way into multimillion-dollar, taxpayer-subsidized stadium deals by buying off councilmembers and their staffs with free food, drinks, and entertainment -- local lobbyists have escalated the war of the freebies.

Until next year, reporting of gifts to city employees is on the honor system. Councilmembers file a state-required conflict-of-interest statement once a year in April, in which they are supposed to itemize the gifts they received the year before. But skeptics noticed many inconsistencies in the number of gifts reported by the councilmembers and their staffers: some reported many more lunches and dinners and gifts than others. This led to suspicions that the councilmembers were forgetting some of the more compromising gifts they received. Without an independent form of verification, there was no way of knowing whether they were telling the truth.

Last year, embarrassed by a series of money-laundering scandals involving city council campaign contributions from developers who subsequently received favorable treatment, the council adopted a change in the city's lobbyist-disclosure law. It now requires that lobbyists file statements disclosing their clients and how much they paid, along with a list of the gifts, including free lunches, dinners, and tickets, that they gave to city employees. If the politicians' accounts of their spending don't agree with those filed by their benefactors, enforcement action can be taken. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work. The system won't be tested until San Diego city councilmembers file this year's expenditure reports next April and the reports can be matched with the new lobbyist statements now being filed each quarter. In the meantime, the honor system prevails.

Why do politicians need free food? Many of them, such as San Diego county supervisor Bill Horn, are said to be independently wealthy. They all make enough money, at least by most people's standards, to pay their own way at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Members of the San Diego City Council, for instance, collect about $54,000 a year. The mayor gets $72,000. They also get car allowances and various other perks, including free parking at city hall and at the airport. But that city council salary doesn't appear to go far enough when hobnobbing at some of the city's more exclusive nightspots, as members of the council and the board of supervisors are wont to do. And covering all those political benefits, where the tab can run more than $500 per seat, can no doubt stretch a budget to the breaking point.

Freeloading isn't limited to San Diego's city council and its staff. In fact, the county board of supervisors reports receiving more freebies than the city council, although some skeptics think that the city council is failing to disclose everything it gets, which they say creates the unfair appearance that the board is getting more in gifts than the council. Case in point: the free airport-parking cards received by both the board and the city council, as well as many other politicos around the county. Many members of the board report the parking; the city council doesn't. Some members deny using their cards. Others say that city attorney Casey Gwinn, who also gets a free parking card, told them they didn't have to report it. Of course, Gwinn didn't report his either.

What else didn't he report? Who knows? Gwinn is the chief enforcement officer for the city, so he's not likely to turn himself in or ask somebody else to investigate him or the city council, the members of which he's supposed to keep a wary eye on. Except for free meals and hotel rooms from the California League of Cities, Gwinn reports receiving no gifts. Not even a lunch or a bouquet of flowers.

Mel Shapiro, a longtime city hall watchdog, recently raised more doubt about the city's lobbyist-reporting procedures when he questioned why it was that John Moores and Larry Lucchino, who have been described in media accounts as often meeting privately with the city council to lobby on behalf of their giant downtown stadium project, haven't registered as lobbyists. According to statements on file at the city, the Padres have only one registered lobbyist, Kris Michell. Shapiro's inquiry to the city clerk's office, which oversees the filings, was referred to none other than City Attorney Gwinn, who has yet to release an opinion.

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