Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008 | County Supervisor Ron Roberts hadn’t received the approval he needed to accept a $12,600 gift from the San Diego World Trade Center to pay his way on a 20-day trade mission to China and Vietnam. Formal approval was still three weeks away. But when Roberts fired off an e-mail on his BlackBerry one mid-December morning, his planning was well underway.

“We have set the dates for our trip,” Roberts began, listing the cities he would visit. “There has been more work after the fire than I had expected and I am looking forward to the travel. 🙂 Ron”

State law prohibits giving elected officials gifts valued above $390, a prohibition designed to reduce the influence of money in politics. But the law has an exemption: Nonprofit groups such as the trade center can give a gift to a government agency — so long as the agency chooses who should accept it. The state Fair Political Practices Commission is considering prohibiting the practice, amid worries that it is being abused in order to give gifts to specific elected officials.

When gifts are given to the county, they can’t be earmarked for any specific official. Roberts was able to accept the $12,600 gift — well above the state’s $390 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 long before he was designated as the county’s liaison.

As required, the trade center gave the gift to the county and never explicitly said the trip was meant for Roberts. But it is clear from internal county e-mails that the gift was solely designed for Roberts.

In late November, the trade center sent a draft itinerary to Darren Pudgil, Roberts’ former chief of staff. At the bottom of the itinerary was a note: “Ron might return from Vietnam earlier while the mission group is still there.”

Roberts and his fellow supervisors didn’t designate him as the recipient until early January on a 5-0 vote. Neither Roberts nor Bella Heule, president and CEO of the trade center, returned calls for comment.

Roberts, who leaves March 11 for Beijing, has traveled on five Asian trade missions with the San Diego World Trade Center and been a major benefactor of the group. Since 2001, he has directed at least $854,000 in taxpayer-funded grants to the center. He sent the group $125,000 in 2007. When he travels to Asia, the trade group will pay for his plane flight, lodging and meals while in cities such as Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

Bob Stern, a former state Fair Political Practices Commission attorney, said accepting the gift did not violate state law, because the trade group did not explicitly name Roberts when giving the gift. But Stern said the manner in which the gift was made is “not what the regulation intended.” Instead, he said the law aims to have the Board of Supervisors pick someone at a meeting — and not have the outcome be preordained.

If the county does in fact accept 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 $390 limit.

The Fair Political Practices Commission is considering a revision of state law that could eliminate the ability for nonprofit groups to give large gifts to elected county officials. The commission is evaluating whether to prohibit elected officials from accepting gifts from nonprofits — even if they are first given to a government agency. The revision process is ongoing, commission spokesman Roman Porter said, and isn’t expected to be discussed until at least March.

Across the state, several politicians have come under scrutiny for accepting gifts from nonprofit groups. In Orange County, a county supervisor has displayed a museum’s artwork specifically loaned to him as a gift. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has traveled abroad on trips funded by the California State Protocol Foundation, a nonprofit closely connected to the California Chamber of Commerce.

Roberts has been criticized for receiving gifts from a nonprofit trade group to which he has directed funding. Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said the trade center’s gift allows Roberts to enjoy a more lavish trip than he would if he used public funds for his travel.

“If the county directly funded a trip for an official to go to China, then there would be additional oversight,” Lutar said. “They’d find a less expensive way to travel to China (and) they probably wouldn’t be going for three weeks.”

Roberts has followed similar steps in planning for past trade missions. When the trade center paid Roberts’ way to China in 2006, he had ordered lapel pins, framed egret prints and Padres caps to give as gifts before formally being designated as the gift’s recipient. Proponents of the trade missions say a public official’s presence helps open doors that otherwise would be shut.

Roberts has tapped two pots of taxpayer-funded grant money to regularly give money to the trade center. 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 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.

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

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