July 10, 2011; Source: Daily Breeze | Yet again, the problems of politicians running charities without revealing their donors has come to the surface. The California Latino Legislative Caucus has a foundation with a mission of honoring Latino role models and building cultural awareness.  These are legitimate charitable purposes on their own, but delivered through a foundation run by members of the California state assembly, that’s another thing entirely.

Apparently, the other caucuses of the legislature that have foundations reveal the names and amounts of their donors, but not the Latino caucus, at least until a partial disclosure that was embarrassed out of the caucus last week. The chair of the caucus, Tony Mendoza, released the names of donors of more than $5,000 since he took the helm of the group late last year and promised some sort of full disclosure beginning next year. It was a begrudging change for the caucus, many of whose members stridently opposed donor disclosure. Mendoza’s list — limited by the $5,000 threshold and the short timeframe — yielded only seven names. 

The Caucus used to disclose donors’ names, but stopped in 2009.  For the two years before that, the Caucus’s foundation had taken in $856,000, with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and corporations such as Verizon, AT&T, ConocoPhillips and Oracle among the largest donors — most with business in front of the legislature. Would a fuller disclosure of donations to the caucus foundation yield more special interest donors? That’s what critics charge. 

Mendoza’s reluctant, limited disclosure failed to get the critics off the caucus’s back. Ultimately, the caucus agreed to make additional disclosures — more names and larger numbers. Mendoza supplied the names of the donors of $243,600 in 2009 and $195,500 for 2010.  The largest donors on the 2009 list included Eli Lilly & Co. ($25,000), Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (“Big Pharma”, $10,000), Community Financial Services ($25,000), Comcast ($16,000), AT&T ($30,000), and the CA Real Estate PAC ($25,000).  For 2010, the big donors included AT&T ($25,000), Verizon ($18,000), Eli Lilly & Co. ($50,000), and the CA State Association of Electrical Workers ($20,000). Somehow, one might suspect that these special interest donors were motivated by more than just their commitments to promoting Latino cultural heritage.  

We all know the problem, but the Daily Breeze described it succinctly: “It’s ridiculous to pretend they’re not political. Caucus members gain visibility and a positive image through these programs, and donors know it. If a lawmaker asks somebody for $5,000 or $50,000, whether the request is for a campaign chest or a charity, the donor has to assume he or she is purchasing, at a minimum, some good will.” The Oakland Tribune summed up the consequence of nondisclosure clearly too:  “UNNECESSARY SECRECY in government is the enemy of public trust. That is a fundamental reality that California’s Latino Legislative Caucus is ignoring.”—Rick Cohen