By Jon Ortiz
Published: Thursday, Sep. 15, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

It could have been worse. A lot worse.

Next week, a state watchdog committee will take up 16 cases involving current and former employees and board members of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System who failed to report gifts they had received from business associates.

The Fair Political Practices Commission hearing next Thursday will likely close the book on another embarrassing chapter for CalPERS. The fund has been working to rehab its image for the last couple of years after an influence-peddling scandal implicated former high-level employees and board members.

A CalPERS investigation revealed that promises of jobs, free gifts and travel greased its deal-making machinery. There’s a criminal investigation and a multimillion-dollar lawsuit pending.

The 16 CalPERS-related cases coming before the FPPC next week are tiny by comparison. Investment staffers, board members and a few other fund employees didn’t correctly report they had received freebies like clothing, meals, Cirque du Soleil and Rose Bowl tickets, luggage and wine, according to FPPC investigators who examined records going back to 2006.

The law says anything worth more than $50 is supposed to be publicly disclosed on a state-issued form. A bill on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk lowers the annual limit on gifts from $420 to $50.

Nearly two years ago, CalPERS banned virtually all gifts to its investment staff.

The fines in the CalPERS cases range from $200 to $3,600 for failing to properly report gifts received before the ban from companies that do business with the fund and, in some instances, wanted to do more.

The individuals have agreed to pay the fines, assuming the FPPC’s commissioners sign off on them next week. They usually do.

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