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Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008 | County Supervisor Ron Roberts is poised to return to Asia in March on a free trip that comes courtesy of a local business organization to which he has given at least $854,000 in taxpayer funds.

County supervisors are scheduled to vote Tuesday about whether to send Roberts on the 20-day trade mission to Vietnam and China. The San Diego World Trade Center would pay $12,600 to cover Roberts’ transportation, lodging and meals while in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

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.

In the past, Roberts has planned on taking such trips before he had the requisite approval from his fellow supervisors. When he traveled to Asia in 2006, he arranged meetings there at least two months before supervisors designated him as their representative.

The trade center has paid to send supervisors on five trade missions to Asia. Roberts has been the beneficiary of each of those gifts — as well as a staunch financial backer of the trade group since 2001. Last year, he directed $125,000 in taxpayer funds to the organization.

If approved, Roberts would travel to Asia with the goal of “further expanding San Diego’s business and trade opportunities,” according to a memo to supervisors. Roberts’ spokesman, Darren Pudgil, did not return calls for comment.

Bob Stern, a former state Fair Political Practices Commission attorney and president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said the arrangement between Roberts and the trade center allows him to avoid the perception that he is taking trips on the dime of county taxpayers.

“Instead of having the money go through the World Trade Center, the taxpayers should just pay for it,” Stern said. “Then usually it doesn’t cost as much because it isn’t as luxurious. I’d want him to say why the trip was important for him as a supervisor to use pseudo-taxpayer money for it.”

Roberts has utilized two pools of grant money to fund the trade center. County supervisors each year receive $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, sponsoring little league ballparks, libraries and concerts.

Critics say the grant funding helps supervisors cultivate campaign supporters. A 2005 San Diego County Grand Jury report found that each supervisor’s personal priorities, not the county’s needs, determined where the funding went.

Since 2002, for example, Supervisor Pam Slater-Price has received at least $36,600 in campaign donations from employees and board members of the nonprofits to which she has routed taxpayer funding. No other supervisor has received more than $2,000 in that time, according to a voiceofsandiego.org review of campaign finance disclosures.

Bella Heule, president and CEO of the trade center, said having a county official on the trip helps open doors — particularly in communist China, where many businesses are still government-run.

For proof of the trade missions’ benefits, Heule pointed to Bruce Hueners, CEO of Palomar Technologies, a Carlsbad company that designs and manufactures semiconductor assembly equipment.

Hueners, who sits on the trade center’s board of directors and traveled on a 2004 mission to China, said the trip helped cultivate “some sizeable business” later that year.

“It was largely a result of the contacts that were made there that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own,” Hueners said. “It just gave that Good Housekeeping stamp of approval that they’re looking for to validate you as a company.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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