By Laurel Rosenhall
lrosenhall@sacbee.com
Published: Friday, Mar. 7, 2014 – 12:00 am

Following a spate of ethical problems at the Capitol, a group of California lawmakers Thursday proposed a set of bills they say will change the way they do business.

In recent months, two senators have taken leaves of absence to fight criminal charges, and two Sacramento lobbying firms paid record-setting fines for violating lobbying laws.

Senate Democrats, saying the events had prompted their action, unveiled proposals to ban campaign fundraising parties at the homes of registered lobbyists, cap gifts for legislators at $200 apiece and specifically prevent them from getting free tickets to concerts, sporting events and amusement parks.

“There is no question that recent events are testing the public’s faith in how the government does our work,” said Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat from Bell Gardens. “These bills represent a new day in accountability for our state government and elected officials. And it is one of the most significant proposals to change political practices in California in the last 20 years.”

The proposals come weeks after nearly 40 state officials received warning letters from the Fair Political Practices Commission for having campaign fundraisers at the home of Sacramento lobbyist Kevin Sloat. Sloat’s lavish hospitality at the events – including fine wines, top shelf liquors and expensive cigars – amounted to prohibited campaign contributions because they exceeded the limits of how much lobbyists can give to officials whose votes they seek to influence.

The $133,500 fine Sloat paid last month set a new record in California as the highest fine paid for violating lobbying regulations. The previous record was set in September, when the California Strategies public affairs firm and three of its partners agreed to pay a $40,500 fine for working to sway government decisions without registering as lobbyists. One of those partners, Jason Kinney, is a political consultant to the Senate Democrats.

Two Senate Democrats are now on leaves of absence while they fight criminal charges. Sen. Rod Wright of Baldwin Hills was found guilty of perjury in January for lying about where he lived. Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello was indicted by a federal grand jury last month on 24 counts of corruption. Both men contest the charges.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, who embraced the package of bills, was quick to note the measures don’t relate to the issues highlighted in the criminal cases.

“The allegations against the two members relate to breaking the rules – to criminal violations,” Steinberg said. “This package deals with practices that are legal. So it’s different. Now, is the time right to bring this forward because of what we have experienced, and what has been in the news lately? Yes.”

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