As California's economy tanked and a record state budget deficit loomed, state lawmakers, their relatives and staffs were treated to $610,000 in gifts from lobbyist employers, according to a new analysis.
More than $200,000 also was given to statewide officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Santa Rosa Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, was among the top 10 recipients statewide, and third highest in the Senate, accepting $7,123 of free dinners, hotel accommodations and concert tickets from January 2008 through June 2009, according to an analysis in the Sacramento Bee.
Other North Coast Democrats also accepted the executive-style perks, which included complimentary resort stays and box seats at Sacramento Kings games, according to the newspaper's database.
Assemblywoman Noreen Evans had gifts worth $4,050, Assemblyman Jared Huffman had about $2,850 in perks, Assemblyman Wes Chesbro had $1,950 and Sen. Mark Leno, $1,700, said the report.
Although individual gifts valued at $420 or less are permitted under state law, watchdogs said they can grant unfair access to lawmakers and influence decisions on bills.
"It's particularly galling that when most folks are tightening their belts, legislators and staff members are living the high life on the tab of special interests," said Derek Cressman, regional director for Common Cause, a non-partisan group that has worked to limit gifts. "Voters are going to get short-changed as a result."
Lawmakers respond that they can't be bought with a few fine meals or floral bouquets. Many of the freebies come from attendance at receptions that must be disclosed even if the lawmaker didn't eat or drink, they said.
Evans, whose office had perks from a new car dealers association and the VISA credit card company among others, said the largesse has no bearing on her political decisions.
After-hours meetings over food and drink serve a legitimate purpose and help her be a more effective legislator, she said.
For example, she said she encouraged her staff to attend a reception at Spataro restaurant in downtown Sacramento put on by Family Winemakers of California because she is chairwoman of the Assembly wine committee. Her district includes parts of Sonoma and Napa counties.
"The capital runs on relationships," said Evans, who questioned some of the Bee's reporting on her gifts. "If you try to remain aloof, you don't get a lot of work done."
The database, which is online, was compiled from tens of thousands of lobbyist reports filed with the California Secretary of State. It includes gifts to elected officials as well as an additional $233,000 in perks to heads of departments and state agencies such as the California Coastal Commission.
The Bee reported that in the 18-month period legislators received about 8,000 free meals and 2,000 free event tickets. The biggest donors were telecommunications and oil companies.
Local lawmakers benefited from the gestures.
Wiggins' office ranked 10th among all state officeholders accepting non-travel related gifts and topped the state in use of gifts by her staff, according to the research.
The former Santa Rosa City Councilwoman would not be interviewed or comment on her gifts, which included hundreds of dollars in King's tickets for her staff that were provided by the petroleum giant BP America.
In May, as a deadline approached to close a record $26 billion budget gap, a Wiggins aide enjoyed a free $420 VIP ticket to the Sonoma Jazz Festival paid for by AT&T. A month later, the company provided $300 worth of tickets to a Yanni concert for another staffer.