When it meets May 19, the state Fair Political Practices Commission is poised to ban the types of trips that county Supervisor Ron Roberts has taken to China. Roberts has repeatedly traveled abroad on trips paid for by the San Diego World Trade Center, a nonprofit business group that he has directed at least $854,000 in taxpayer-funded grants to since 2001.

The commission, which enforces the state’s Political Reform Act, proposes to prohibit elected officials from accepting gifts of travel. If approved, only staff members would be allowed to accept travel gifts, and only if they were designated by a superior. For example, an accountant could still attend a conference. But an elected official could not travel on a trip with a non-specific benefit. In a staff report examining the rationale for the change, the commission says:

[T]he possibility of abuse is much greater with private sources paying for travel for elected officials. While there are some legitimate privately sponsored trips for educational or governmental purposes, many privately sponsored trips for elected officials appear to the public to be junkets. If a trip is necessary or offers important first-hand opportunities for elected officials to view a manufacturing plant or port facilities in another country, arguably the government should pay for it as official travel.

Roberts has legally been able to accept the travel gifts — well above the state’s $390 allowable gift limit — because they have been given to the county, not to him personally. Though the World Trade Center has never explicitly said that its gifts were meant for Roberts, our investigations have shown that Roberts has repeatedly planned on accepting the gifts long before he was actually designated as the recipient. Internal e-mails have clearly spelled out that the gifts have been solely designed for Roberts.

The commission report addresses that, saying:

Under the existing regulation, it has proved practically impossible, if not fictitious, for donors to provide a gift of travel to the agency, ostensibly “not designating” the individuals who will use the gift.

ROB DAVIS

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