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CRC In The News

Public Disclosure Law Has Big Gap

Los Angeles Daily Journal
November 3, 2003
Peter Blumberg

A decade after a travel junket scandal rocked the California Supreme Court, the public doesn't always know where judges go on expense-paid trips to out-of-state conferences.

Justice Janice Rogers Brown complied with public disclosure laws when she listed $4,000 in expenses for two week-long educational seminars in 1999 sponsored by the University of Kansas.

But nowhere did the state's financial disclosure report require Brown to note that she spent the second week of her studies not on campus in Lawrence, Kans., but at the Sun Dial Beach Resort on southern Florida's Sanibel Island.

Likewise, Brown and Justices Ming Chin and Marvin Baxter all jetted to Key West, Fla., in May 1997 for a three-day seminar as the guests of the Indiana-based Liberty Fund and Claremont-McKenna College's Center for Judicial Studies, according to their disclosure reports. They each listed $1,920 in gifts as payment of expenses for travel, lodging and subsistence.

But the public wouldn't know from their reports that they discussed the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the writings of the Founding Fathers at a vacation destination.

The director of the University of Kansas seminar program for state judges, the Law and Organizational Economics Center, confirmed Brown's attendance at the Florida session Dec. 11-18, 1999.

Director Henry Butler also informed the Daily Journal of Brown's attendance at a three-day law symposium at University of Kansas in 1998 for which he said she was paid $200 to help cover the cost of airfare, lodging and group meals.

That trip, for a round-table debate about tort law, was not disclosed by Brown at all.

The standard disclosure form filed by judges on a yearly basis requires to them to name of the source of gifts they have received, as well as the address of the source, but not the destination of their travels. Educational seminars do not count as gifts, but privately paid expenses for out-of-state travel must be reported, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

"I just didn't think the destination was that important," said Brown's secretary, Harriette Helmar. "I tried to put everything in that little form that I could possibly squeeze in with a typewriter."

Baxter made the same point in an interview. Chin, who was traveling out of state last week, declined to comment.
Helmar confirmed Brown's attendance at the 1998 symposium, but declined to comment further.

In 1993, then-Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas drew heavy criticism when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that he had made 12 trips and spent 76 days traveling outside California the year before to law conferences as far away as Bolivia and Egypt. The Chronicle relied on Lucas' annual disclosure report to tally his $18,000 in out-of-state travel expenses for that year.

Though some critics questioned the propriety of some of his trips, Lucas was cleared of any wrongdoing after he asked for an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance.

Lucas had come under fire not only for the amount of time he was on the road, but also for accepting invitations to appear at lavish conferences sponsored by insurance industry groups.

In any event, Lucas' disclosure reports consistently listed his destinations along with all the other information required by the Fair Political Practices Commission on "statement of economic interest" forms.

While none of the justices on the current court travel nearly as much as Lucas did, including Chief Justice Ronald George, they, too, have customarily listed destinations when describing their out-of-state travel on the disclosure forms.

Baxter, for instance, reported that he went to Hawaii in 2000 to give a keynote speech at an American Bar Trial Lawyers seminar. He has also reported specific locations of State Bar conferences he's attended in Anaheim and Monterey.

Chin reported that in 2000 he took trips to Ottawa and Toronto, Canada; Rome; and Washington, D.C., for meetings of the Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts.

FPPC officials declined to comment on the adequacy of the state's travel disclosure rules.

"We can't comment on a specific fact situation," said spokeswoman Sigrid Bathen. "The law is what it is."

A Washington, D.C., liberal advocacy group that reported on 237 federal judges attending more than 500 privately-funded seminars found that dozens of judges in the 1990s failed to follow federal rules requiring disclosure of expenses.

"Non-disclosure is a very big problem," said Doug Kendall, executive director of Community Rights Counsel, which published a report in 2000 titled "Nothing for Free."

Kendall's report concluded that corporate interests and conservative philanthropies were wining and dining judges in a veiled effort to lobby the judiciary to support their causes.

The sponsors of the seminars that hosted Brown, Chin and Baxter say those charges are unfounded. They particularly object to the seminars being labeled junkets.

Butler, director of the Kansas program, which sent Brown and hundreds of other state judges to Sanibel Island between 1995 and 2000, said the University of Kansas was economizing by conducting its session at an off-season resort with hotel rooms cheaper than in Lawrence.

However, Brown's financial disclosure states that her December 1999 session cost $2,200, compared with $1,800 for her week in Kansas in June.

According to a press account describing the seminar, the Florida itinerary, beyond five hours of classes each day, featured pool-side receptions at the Sun Dial Beach Resort and an array of extracurricular activities, including biking, golf, fishing and visits to wildlife sanctuaries.

Chris Talley, president and CEO of the Liberty Fund, a tax-exempt education foundation, described the Key West seminar as a busy academic schedule without a lot of time for hanging out on the beach. He said the Liberty Fund hosts conferences all over the nation, including places not normally considered vacation hot-spots like Fairfax, Va.

"The [judges] got a two- to three-hour break in the afternoon," he said. "The accommodations and amenities and meals are generally well-done, but they are not lavish."

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