The state Fair Political Practices Commission is considering a change to state law that would prohibit the type of gift that has allowed county Supervisor Ron Roberts to repeatedly travel to China on trips funded by a local business group.

Roberts, who leaves next Tuesday on a 20-day trip through China and Vietnam, has traveled to Asia five times on trips funded by the San Diego World Trade Center, a nonprofit group to which the supervisor has directed at least $854,000 in taxpayer-funded grants.

Ron Roberts

Currently, 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 last two times Roberts has traveled to China, he has been able to accept the gift because it was given to the county, not to him personally. But both times, e-mails obtained by voiceofsandiego.org showed that Roberts, his staff and the trade group were planning on Roberts’ participation long before he was designated as the county’s liaison. Those e-mails made it clear that the gifts were solely intended for Roberts.

The Fair Political Practices Commission proposes to outlaw such gifts.

The commission is proposing three changes to state law:

  • Elected officials would be prohibited from accepting all gifts of travel. If this change is approved, Roberts would no longer be able to travel to China on trips funded by the San Diego World Trade Center.
  • Government employees who aren’t elected would still be able to accept gifts of travel, but would be prohibited from accepting gifts that exceeded their agency’s reimbursement rate. (If the agency only allowed coach travel, a bureaucrat couldn’t travel first-class.)
  • Government officials who do accept travel gifts must first have written authorization before the costs are incurred.

    The commission will initially review the changes when it meets March 13. If the changes advance, the commission could finalize them within a month or two, commission spokesman Roman Porter said.

ROB DAVIS

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