The word Maui has been a longtime stain on the reputation of the California legislature, according to critics of a San Diego–based nonprofit that gets little attention in the local paper but lots of ink in Sacramento and Los Angeles.
As previously reported here, the Hawaiian island has long been the scene of a yearly post-session legislative blow-out otherwise known as the California Independent Voter Project's annual conference, hosted by the nonprofit set up by ex–San Diego Democratic state senator Steve Peace.
Even as the legislature has been hit by repeated scandal over the past decade, a parade of members and former members has trooped to Maui’s Fairmont Hotel to enjoy the conviviality offered by Peace and associates, including Daniel Howle, a longtime pal and influence peddler for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, which has helped bankroll the controversial island gathering.
Other special-interest backers reportedly have included Southern California Edison, big tobacco’s Altria, the California Beer and Beverage Distributors, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and Chevron.
According to the nonprofit's website, “[Independent Voter Project] is supported by thousands of small donors and various larger contributors. IVP's major contributors include diverse corporate entities such as Eli Lilly, Pacific Gas and Electric, the correctional officers labor union CCPOA, and high wealth individuals, such as Charles Munger Jr., John Moores, and Board Member Steve Peace."
The statement adds, "Private news organizations sell advertising to the same groups. PBS collects funds from the same donor base, in addition to soliciting and accepting government funding. News organizations and reporters both sponsor and attend conferences as paid speakers."
The Maui trip is a bipartisan affair, with past guests including Republican ex-assemblyman Martin Garrick, busted in 2011 for drunk driving after he led Sacramento police on a chase to the capitol garage.
Garrick repaid the nonprofit for his expenses the following February, subsequently saying he had intended to reimburse the foundation all along, but the paperwork took time. Many attendees dip into campaign money to pay their tabs.
Two years ago, Howle told the Sacramento Bee that the November repast of free drinks, food, lodging, and rounds of golf was being spurned by some legislators in the wake of the FBI's investigation of Democratic senator Ron Calderon, awaiting trial next year on bribery and money-laundering charges.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported the event was back up to speed, drawing the annual condemnation of Common Cause, a self-styled political reform group.
"After a year marked by numerous ethics scandals in the state Legislature, voters are looking for lawmakers to fight back against corruption, not participate in it," said Sarah Swanbeck, a spokeswoman for Common Cause.
As earlier reported, a lobbyist filing for 2014 revealed senator Marty Block, now facing a primary challenge by fellow Democrat Toni Atkins, partook of a repast at Gannon’s Restaurant in Wailea on November 18, 2014, along with Republican colleagues Anthony Cannella and Tom Berryhill, paid for by cell-phone giant AT&T.
This year, the Bee has done its biggest story yet on the event, dispatching reporter Alexei Koseff to this week's big party in Wailea, where he found ex-senator Rod Wright sipping a mai tai in the hotel bar.
Wright, who resigned last year after his conviction on perjury and vote-fraud charges for lying about his residence address, told a nearby lobbyist that since he no longer was required to file a financial interest disclosure, "I can eat and drink as much as I want.”
Noted Claremont McKenna College politics professor Jack Pitney in an interview with the paper, "Nobody thinks you’re going to Maui to learn things. If the purpose of the trip were to educate lawmakers about the problems of California, they would go to Fresno.”
According to the Bee account, "The Independent Voter Project provides legislators an average of nearly $2,500 in airfare, hotel rooms and food to attend the conference."
The story also provides new insight into the event's ambiance.
"The lobby bar, bridging the airy atrium foyer to a central courtyard with three pools and a rolling view down to the ocean, becomes a favorite gathering spot. On any given evening, lawmakers and corporate representatives chat late into the evening, long after the in-house musician has packed in his acoustic guitar covers of 'The Girl From Ipanema' and Lionel Richie’s 'Hello.'"
Senate Democrat Bob Wieckowski, who characterized himself as "one of the most liberal members" to attend, was interviewed during a beach bike ride, "before an evening golf outing with representatives from AT&T."
In a new twist this year, the Bee story was countered with the Independent Voter Project’s own online account of the getaway.
“Howle says members of the press are not invited to the event in order to protect the privacy of the attendees, and to facilitate the candid conversations that can only happen when the press is not peeping over the shoulders of these lawmakers and industry experts.”
Added the post, “However, this did not stop the Sacramento Bee from sending their own reporter, Alexei Koseff, who Howle says had full access to attendees as they went to and from meetings, and had full access to the IVP co-chair.”
Koseff, however, was barred from official events that the voter project’s scribes were allowed to attend “under the condition that names, titles, and companies were left private unless permission was obtained from the source,” a condition rejected by the Bee, according to the nonprofit’s account.
“Howle explained that if reporters were allowed in the panel rooms, any real and honest discussion about these important topics ‘would stop immediately’ because of the concern that the media would look only for the ‘gotcha’ moments instead of focusing on the substantive discussions that occur during the event.”
Continued the item, “The conversations that took place between attendees confirmed that this is a common concern among lawmakers and industry professionals alike — that the current political and media environment is hostile toward business leaders and lawmakers discussing real problems and developing amicable solutions.”