Magnifying Glass

By Laurel Rosenhall
11/15/2014 10:00 PM

When Sen. Ricardo Lara ran for a Los Angeles-area seat in the Legislature in 2010, he turned to a veteran Sacramento campaign consultant to help him get elected: Richie Ross, who has decades of experience running campaigns for Democrats across California.

Ross is also a lobbyist, representing a half-dozen unions, businesses and nonprofits as they work to shape policy in the state Capitol. And when Ross needed a legislator in recent years to carry bills for a construction industry client, he turned to Lara, who still owed him $60,000 for his work on the campaign.

Lara, a Bell Gardens Democrat, declined to comment for this story. Ross said their relationship goes back at least 15 years, long before Lara ever ran for office.

“We have a personal friendship,” Ross said. “I would have asked Ricardo to carry (the bills) whether or not I had worked on his campaign.”

Ross’ dual role as both a campaign consultant who helps legislative candidates get elected and a lobbyist who is paid by outside interests to sway legislators’ votes is getting fresh scrutiny. Last week, the state’s political watchdog announced that Ross had violated California’s lobbying laws and had agreed to pay a $5,000 fine and forgive $160,000 of debt owed him by two legislators for campaign work.

The proposed settlement between Ross and the Fair Political Practices Commission says Ross’ “violations are potentially very serious because of the opportunity for improper influence inherent in the situation where a state legislator owes a large debt to a lobbyist.”

Two legislators have been indebted to Ross for years, the FPPC settlement said. The document cited the $60,000 Lara has owed him since 2011 and a $100,000 debt Ross carried for nearly six years for outgoing Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino.

A search of campaign finance records shows Lara and Fong are not the only legislators who owe Ross money. At least four others do, too, according to campaign statements covering activity through Oct. 18. All of them are Democratic assemblymen: Luis Alejo of Watsonville, Ian Calderon of Whittier, Roger Dickinson of Sacramento and Adam Gray of Merced.

Their debts are not part of the FPPC action, and commission spokesman Jay Wierenga said in an email that Lara and Fong’s debts are “the only cases with sufficient evidence to support the claims of violations.”

Ross said he sent Alejo a letter in October, forgiving all his debt, although Alejo’s Oct. 18 campaign statement shows he owed Ross $33,000.

Sacramento is full of people who work multiple angles of the political business to sway elections, influence officials and benefit the interest groups that pay them. Lobbyists run huge independent expenditure campaigns for clients who want to shape elections. Unions spend big to help their preferred candidates. Consultants connect corporate clients with lawmakers through donations, receptions and industry tours. Political strategists are paid to elect candidates and advise business and labor clients. All of them have interests in how those legislators vote.

What makes Ross unusual is that he works directly on the campaigns of legislative candidates and also registers as a lobbyist who seeks votes from the Legislature. A registered lobbyist must disclose who’s paying him, how much and what bills he’s trying to influence.

“I have those two roles because other people who influence policy and who play roles in campaigns don’t register themselves as lobbyists. I’m the only one who actually does that,” said Ross, who has deep ties to the labor movement stemming from his days as an aide to farmworker icon Cesar Chavez.

“Do you think it gives me an in that is different in any way from others who (use) campaign contributions in order to have an in?”

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who sits on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said Ross’ transparency doesn’t eliminate potential concerns about the intersections in his professional relationships. “There are many people in Sacramento and in every city hall across the nation who have some dual role, and it’s under cover of darkness. But that doesn’t mean that just because his is out in the open it’s not a conflict,” she said.

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