Last week, 60 leaders from San Joaquin County were in Washington, D.C. to lobby the federal government for money for local projects. Aside from the elected and government officials, the group also included private sponsors who had paid big bucks to underwrite the One Voice trip.
While sponsorship helps alleviate the burden on taxpayers, ethics experts argue that allowing private sponsors to fund and participate in government lobbying trips gives the impression of unfair access to elected officials.
"It looks too chummy," said Jack Marshall, president of Pro Ethics, a Washington-based ethics consulting firm. "It creates the appearance of distorted access and distorted privilege."
A total of 11 sponsors contributed $17,500 to help pay for the lobbying trip. Sponsors paid between $500 and $5,000 to offset the cost of airfare, meals and hotels for the delegates, who included mayors and council members from San Joaquin County cities.
The week-long trip, in its eighth year, sought money for 30 countywide infrastructure projects and has brought back $54 million for the county to date.
The total cost of the 2007 trip, which was organized by the San Joaquin Council of Governments, is still being calculated, according to SJCOG Senior Planner Susan Filios.
Past trips have averaged about $50,000, including sponsors' contributions and participants' registration fees, she said.
Sponsors' benefits included acknowledgment at organized events during the trip, and the opportunity to display promotional materials and advertisements in information packets, according to Filios.
• Pacific Gas and Electric
• Granite Constriction Co.
• Teichert construction
• AKF Development LLC
• Engineering firm PB Americas
• Engineering consultants Kjeldsen, Sinnock and Neudeck Inc.
• Transportation consultant Fehr and Peers
• Development company Grupe Co.
• Law firm Neumiller and Beardslee
Source: San Joaquin Council of Governments.
This year's sponsors were Richland Planned Communities, Pacific Gas and Electric, Granite Construction Co., Teichert Construction, AKF Development LLC, engineering firm PB Americas, engineering consultants Kjeldsen, Sinnock and Neudeck Inc., transportation consultant Fehr and Peers, development company Grupe Co., law firm Neumiller and Beardslee, and Citigroup.
Besides sponsorships, much of the trip costs were paid for out of city funds. Some elected officials say the sponsorships help reduce the burden on the taxpayer, even though the relationship it creates is ethically questionable.
"If it were a one-time thing, it would be a benefit to the citizens because the taxpayers aren't paying the whole cost," Lodi Vice Mayor and One Voice participant JoAnne Mounce said.
"If it creates a long term relationship, then it needs a second look. It depends on how far the relationship goes and what the expectations are."
Marshall said the appearance of a breech of ethics is reason enough to not allow companies to sponsor government lobbying trips.
"To the extent it causes a question of integrity in the government, that makes it a reason to prohibit it," he said. "It kind of flunks the comfort level test. Maybe it's completely innocent. But it's the kind of pay for play type of stuff that's questionable."