By Laurel Rosenhall
Published: Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013 – 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013 – 12:36 am

Devon Ford, an associate in the influential public affairs firm California Strategies, sounded enthusiastic about an event his company was hosting at the Auto Club Speedway, a Southern California racetrack in Fontana that is one of its clients.

The excursion was billed as an educational opportunity for legislators and their staff to learn about what he called “the excitement of IndyCar racing,” and included a tour of the garage, face time with Speedway’s president and dinner in the private skybox during the race.

But because the firm was inviting government officials, Ford issued a warning in an email to colleagues.

“Our legal counsel reminds us that registered state lobbyists are prohibited from ‘arranging’ for the giving of a gift to a public official,” Ford wrote in a September 2012 email obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

“If you are a registered state lobbyist and would like to recommend a specific public official receive an invitation from California Strategies to attend this event, please make your recommendation to me as soon as possible.”

In other words: The firm’s lobbyists, who operate under strict disclosure rules and are prohibited from giving politicians gifts worth more than $10, couldn’t legally invite government officials to the race. But they could make sure key politicians were invited by having their non-lobbyist colleagues make the invitation.

A California Strategies spokesman said the language on the invitation had been vetted by legal counsel and was deemed appropriate. The speedway events were not mentioned in the final settlement that California’s Fair Political Practices Commission reached last month with the firm. But it was a similar incident that led the state’s political watchdog agency to audit California Strategies, said enforcement chief Gary Winuk.

“It made us think about how a firm that both lobbies and does governmental strategies could be giving gifts over the lobbying limit to legislators,” he said. “It’s very tempting to use your non-lobbyists, when you’re so close, to do the things lobbyists can’t. The potential for skirting the rules is the reason we pursued the case so aggressively.”

California Strategies is not the only firm in Sacramento that offers clients a variety of services requiring a careful dance along the line that separates lobbying from less regulated forms of advocacy. But it has been a target of competitors who say the firm’s approach creates an uneven playing field: It has a long list of partners who have deep connections inside government but do not register as lobbyists.

Three of the partners recently admitted crossing the line into lobbying in the settlement with the FPPC. The agreement last month required former gubernatorial speechwriter Jason Kinney, former legislator Rusty Areias and former Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Winston Hickox to register as lobbyists, disclose one client each and, along with their firm, pay a combined fine of $40,500.

When the firm opened its doors in 1997, it didn’t have a single lobbyist on staff. Instead, what its four founding partners had were close ties to then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

California Strategies founder Bob White had worked for Wilson for three decades. When he quit his job as the governor’s chief of staff, The Sacramento Bee described it on the front page as the end of “one of the longest political marriages in California history.” White had a strong relationship with the governor, as well as deep connections to virtually every branch of state government. As Wilson’s top adviser, he vetted many of the bureaucracy’s top appointees.

“Bob’s vision was to set up a consulting practice that would represent the interests of some of California’s major employers,” said Martin Wilson, a vice president at the California Chamber of Commerce who worked with White for many years in GOP politics. “Bob has deep ties to the California employer community. He’s the go-to person when people have problems they want to get solved.”

Today, California Strategies comprises two sister companies that share an office, a website and many of the same staff.

One company is registered to lobby, and files quarterly reports to the secretary of state detailing its clients and income. The public affairs branch, on the other hand, largely works out of the public eye. It’s made up of well-connected former government officials who offer strategic consulting that’s supposed to be more general than lobbying.

The firm touts its connections inside government to help businesses navigate the powers that regulate them. The company website promotes expertise in a spectrum of policy areas – including environment, agriculture, gambling, health care, land use, energy and technology – and partners who are former “state legislators, senior government staff, state cabinet officials (and) federal officials.”

“High-level involvement in the public and private sectors and relationships built over decades translate into the expertise and trust needed to achieve success for clients,” the site says.

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