By Steven Harmon
Bay Area News Group
Posted: 02/23/2013 07:21:00 PM PST
Updated: 02/24/2013 09:44:18 AM PST

SACRAMENTO — With no opponent last year, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla glided through the election season. But the Martinez Democrat spent campaign money as if she were fighting for her political life.

In burning through $407,000 of her donors’ money in 2012, Bonilla took a half-dozen flights in and out of California, including a trip to Maui to be wined and dined by lobbyists. And she held dozens of lunches and dinners — described in spending reports as “campaign strategy” meetings — across the state, 62 in all. The tab: $11,567.

Bonilla was hardly alone in blurring the line between personal and professional uses of her campaign donations, an examination by this newspaper shows. Yet she and her colleagues can expect their spending sprees to go unchallenged.

It’s a glaring weakness of California’s campaign-finance reporting system, making it ripe for abuse: It’s hard to verify whether the expenses of Bonilla and other politicians and office-seekers are legitimate. The law is vague, saying candidates can dip into their treasuries for anything with a political, legislative or governmental purpose. In addition, there are only minimal requirements when it comes to reporting — saying how many people ate at a restaurant, the cost and location. And few questions are raised if those details are missing.

“We would like to see campaign spending regulated at a higher threshold so that the money is actually spent on campaigns and not used as slush funds,” said Phillip Ung, a lobbyist for Common Cause, an organization that advocates for greater transparency in politics.

The state Franchise Tax Board and Fair Political Practices Commission conduct random audits on about 10 percent of the campaign finance forms candidates file with the Secretary of State’s Office. But the tax board and FPPC, the state’s political watchdog agency, focus mostly on egregious violations of the law, allowing many potential violations to slip by. And the Legislature has little interest in fixing a system that allows its members to treat themselves to expensive meals and trips, often gaining access to the powerful and connected.

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