Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006 | Supervisor Ron Roberts’ staff had ordered county lapel pins. They’d rounded up framed egret prints and Padres caps to give as gifts on a 26-day Asian trade mission.
Roberts’ meetings were confirmed. His travel arrangements had been reviewed.
But one major step was missing: Roberts and his fellow supervisors hadn’t agreed to send him on the trip to China, paid for by the San Diego World Trade Center.
Roberts was able to accept the $19,541 gift – well above the state’s $360 allowable gift limit – because it was given to the county, not to him personally. But e-mails obtained by voiceofsandiego.org through a California Public Records Act request show that Roberts, his staff and the trade group were planning on Roberts’ participation in mid-July, long before the supervisors unanimously designated him on Sept. 26.
State law prohibits nonprofit trade groups such as the San Diego World Trade Center from giving gifts of more than $360 to individual county officials. But the group can give gifts above the limit to the county, provided that supervisors collectively decide which official gets the gift.
If the county strays from that law and accepts a large gift that is earmarked for a specific public official, either that official or the county must pay down the gift to get it under the $360 limit.
Roberts was planning to travel on the trade mission to Singapore, China and Japan at least two months before he had approval. His trip was paid for by the San Diego World Trade Center, which Roberts has given at least $729,000 in discretionary county funds since 2001.
For example, Darren Pudgil, Roberts’ chief of staff, discussed details of the trip with the supervisor in an Aug. 16 e-mail. “[S]o we will plan to meet with Mr. Yeo in Singapore beginning on Monday afternoon, Oct. 23. Ok?” he wrote.
Roberts’ response: “OK”.
Roberts was not the only county supervisor traveling abroad this fall on a trip funded by a group that has received county grants. Supervisor Pam Slater-Price spent 12 days in Europe in October, courtesy of Mainly Mozart, a local nonprofit organization to which Slater-Price has directed $188,000 in discretionary money since 2001.
The unanimous vote to send Roberts and Pudgil was approved on supervisors’ consent agenda, which allows a vote without discussion.
When the San Diego World Trade Center sent a letter to the county requesting that supervisors designate an official to send on the trip, it did not mention Roberts by name. But he was repeatedly named and copied on e-mails during the planning process, which largely took place before the supervisors’ formal approval.
“As you are aware,” Scott Wang, director of the trade center’s Asia Desk, wrote in an Aug. 1 e-mail to a Singapore economic development official, “San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts is going to lead a trade mission to Singapore, China and Japan in the coming October/November timeframe. … We hope to finalize his itinerary as soon as possible. … I think this will be Ron’s first visit to Singapore.”
Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, and a former attorney for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, said Roberts was able to use a legal loophole to accept the trip.
“I’m sure it’s well-known who is going to go,” Stern said. “I don’t think it means very much for the board to make a decision.”
Bella Heule, president/CEO of the trade center, acknowledged the early communications with Roberts and his staff, but said the exchange was a necessary part of a months-long planning process.
“It’s not exclusive to Ron,” Heule said. “We would welcome any elected official to participate with us. Had the county Board of Supervisors chosen someone else to join our mission, we still could have executed.”
Roberts, who has traveled to China four times previously with the World Trade Center, declined an interview request but released a prepared statement.
“As for coordinating a trade mission like this, the planning obviously begins months in advance,” Roberts wrote. “Given that the Board of Supervisors had approved previous trade missions, I had reason to be confident that they would do so again. However, had this not been approved, the trade mission would have simply proceeded without me.”
Both Roberts and Slater-Price had helped finance the groups that sent them abroad. Since 2001, the duo has given a combined $917,000 in discretionary funds to the two nonprofits.
They tapped two pots of taxpayer-funded grant money to regularly give money to the two groups. Each supervisor annually gets $2.6 million to fund community projects that boost the arts, history and economic development. Proponents say the money is funneled to worthy causes in each district, such as ballparks, libraries and concerts.
Critics say the large pots of money allow supervisors to reward their friends and supporters. A 2005 San Diego County Grand Jury report found that each supervisor’s personal priorities, not the county’s needs or priorities, determined where the funding went.
“What is a public official doing unilaterally giving out money to anybody?” said Bob Fellmeth, executive director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law. “I don’t get it. How do you get authority to make appropriations unilaterally? Wow. Who thought that up? This is not Iraq, where you’re the emperor of your district.”
While the connection between the funds and the supervisors’ trips has been criticized, supporters say a public official’s presence on a trip abroad helps open doors that otherwise would be shut.
Slater-Price spent 12 days in Europe in October at the invitation of Mainly Mozart. Slater-Price had three days of meetings during her trip, which was paid for by the Austrian Tourist Office. Mainly Mozart incurred expenses of approximately $350 to send Slater-Price on the trip.
Slater-Price’s trip treated her to a Mozart opera in Prague, followed by a wine reception and dinner at a Renaissance-era castle. In Salzburg, she was scheduled to see private concerts at a palace and at the home where Mozart was born. In Vienna, she was supposed to attend Sunday mass with the Vienna Boys Choir and a gala dinner at Palais Auersberg. Then she was off to an all-Mozart concert by renowned German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.
John Weil, her chief of staff, said in an e-mail that the trip allowed Slater-Price to meet with event organizers, tourism officials and artists to learn how to make similar cultural events possible in San Diego.
“A glaring issue for San Diego County is this: The City of Vienna spent 30,000,000 Euro on their year-long promotion,” Weil wrote, “while Mainly Mozart spent $188,000. This demonstrates how seriously the Austrians take arts promotion. It was very important to show them that government at some level is supportive of the arts here in San Diego.”
Her office would not release her full itinerary nor would it say when Slater-Price’s ticket was booked.
Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the city of San Diego’s Ethics Commission, said if city officials had accepted similar junkets, the commission would launch an ethics investigation.
“We would certainly conduct an investigation to ensure that if the elected official represented that the trip was not earmarked for their use, we would … make sure that was the case,” Fulhorst said. “We’d also conduct a fact-finding to make sure there was a legitimate governmental purpose in the trip. And beyond that we’d want to do the best to educate our public officials about disclosure and disqualification.”