The California Fair Political Practices Commission loosens restrictions on expensive gifts in cases of lobbyists dating lawmakers and for ceremonial duties at entertainment and sporting events.

By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
December 8, 2011, 9:39 p.m.

Reporting from Sacramento— State lawmakers and city council members can accept expensive gifts from lobbyists without disclosure if they are dating, and can receive meals and lodging in lobbyists’ homes without telling the public, under rules approved Thursday by the state ethics agency.

In addition, officials can accept tickets to Major League Baseball games and other sports and entertainment events if they are performing a “ceremonial duty,” such as throwing out the first pitch. They no longer have to report such gifts, although their government agency must do so, and now they can bring a guest. In another change, it doesn’t matter how much the gift is worth.

The rules overhaul by the Fair Political Practices Commission came in the wake of politicians’ complaints that they were confusing and overly intrusive.

“Gift regulations should apply only in situations when the public official receiving the gift makes governmental decisions that directly affect the person giving,” commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel said.

But groups such as Common Cause said some of the changes go too far, making it easier for lobbyists and others to influence elected officials by showering them with gifts, especially where romance is asserted.

“The problem with regulating corruption in this state’s political culture is that it is so prevalent that it even appears in the bedroom,” said Phillip Ung, policy advocate for California Common Cause.

State law currently bars public officials from accepting gifts valued at more than $420 from a single source or $10 from a registered lobbyist. Officials are required each year to disclose gifts worth more than $50 from many sources, including firms doing business with the state.

The new rules take effect Jan. 1.

Under one new rule, a public official would have to avoid voting on an issue benefiting a dating partner. But meals, concert tickets and other gifts provided by the partner as part of the relationship would not need to be disclosed or limited.

“To the extent that legislator/lobbyist dating is a problem, real or perceived, staff defers to the Legislature to police its own house,” wrote commission General Counsel Zackery P. Morazzini in a memo to the panel.

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