California Governor’s Trip to Vatican Exempt from Disclosure

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California Gov. Jerry Brown flew to the Vatican on a private jet last year, but he did not include the excursion in a list of gifts he must disclose because the plane belongs to a personal friend, billionaire real-estate developer George Marcus.

The Democratic governor reported this week he accepted $22,000 worth of dinner and travel in 2015, including $16,000 to attend the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Paris, paid for by a privately run donor fund and an environmental group.

State law requires elected officials to file an annual statement of gifts they receive that are worth $50 or more to identify potential conflicts of interest. Typically, a private flight paid for by someone else would be reported.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the flight to the Vatican and a subsequent vacation in Italy with Marcus and his wife fall under an exemption for reporting gifts from longtime, close friends who are not lobbyists and have no interests pending a decision by the politician.

“The two have been friends for decades,” Westrup wrote in an emailed statement.

Brown signed the Political Reform Act into law as governor in 1974, establishing the Fair Political Practices Commission. Its rules say officials are not required to disclose payments or gifts from anyone with whom the official has a “long term, close personal friendship unrelated to the official’s position with the agency.”

The Sacramento Bee reported last summer that Brown took the private flight to Italy to attend official business, but he and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, also took a personal holiday with Marcus and his wife after the conference.

Marcus has contributed about $2.5 million to California political issues since 2002, including at least $110,000 to Brown’s campaigns for attorney general and governor.

Bob Stern, who helped Brown create the Fair Political Practices Commission then served as its first general counsel, said he was surprised and disappointed Brown did not disclose the trip.

“If I were advising the governor, I would say disclose anyway,” Stern said. “This wasn’t like exchanging dinners or anything. It was a major gift.”

Stern said it’s up to politicians to differentiate between inconsequential gifts between friends and substantial contributions, like a trip across the globe, which could have meaning to voters.

“The real question, of course, is what other friends have given him rides on private jets,” he said. “The problem is we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Dan Schnur, chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission in 2010, said politicians have wealthy friends and the gift exemption for people with real relationships is used often. “This one may be much larger in scale than most, but it’s a fairly common occurrence,” Schnur said.

Fair Political Practices Commission rules do not specify what qualifies as a friendship. Commission Chairwoman Jodi Remke said she is open to considering revisions in the gift policies.

“With 20-plus regulations defining what is or is not a gift, it’s obviously an area that could be simplified,” she said in an emailed statement.

At the Vatican, Brown spoke at a summit on climate change hosted by Pope Francis, which drew worldwide attention and came as California lawmakers were debating Brown’s proposal to boost the state’s use of renewable energy.

Westrup and Executive Secretary Nancy McFadden accompanied Brown to Italy. Westrup said he took a commercial flight to the conference and McFadden joined the Browns on the private plane.

“She’s been a long term, close personal friend of the Marcus family and, given that, there would be no reason to report it,” Westrup said. “No taxpayer dollars were spent on these flights.”

Staff members have until April 1 to report their own 2015 gifts.

Marcus co-founded one of one of the nation’s top commercial real estate agencies, Marcus and Millichap Inc., and is worth about $1.9 billion, according to a 2015 Bloomberg report.

Since 2011, Marcus has contributed about $5 million to political action committees primarily supporting Democratic candidates for Congress, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

George Marcus, his wife Judy Marcus, and the company do not appear in California lobbying reports dating to 1999.