Living Large 

How state Senator Don Perata uses campaign cash to finance his lavish lifestyle. First of two parts.

Page 5 of 6

Four More Years?

Senator Perata may no longer need to campaign for reelection, but he does have costs that go beyond his lifestyle — such as the legal defense fund he formed after the FBI began investigating him for corruption. But since donors don't particularly like to give to such funds, one fund-raising alternative is to create a campaign committee based on some dubious pretense.

In August 2005, the state senator launched Taxpayers for Perata, a committee he said would cover his run for the state Board of Equalization in 2008. While it's not totally inconceivable that a termed-out Perata might want that job — a plum position that pays nearly $155,000 a year for little work — someone with his name recognition would hardly need much cash for the campaign.

Yet cash he got: Within sixteen months of launching the committee, Perata had raised more than $1 million, and he has already spent more than two-thirds of it. Not a penny, however, was spent campaigning for the Board of Equalization. Instead, he transferred nearly half of the total — $464,000 — to his legal defense fund. Much of the rest was eaten up by his lifestyle expenses. In the last three months of 2005, for example, Perata made three trips to Montclair Village Wines ($719), bought cigars ($173), dined twice at BayWolf ($260), scored furniture from Fenton MacLaren in Oakland ($430), and charged all of it to Taxpayers for Perata.

From the same coffer, Perata made the previously mentioned Apple Store gift purchase, spent $1,347 at T. Shipley, and hosted a $22,758 golf tournament at Ruby Hill. He took at least three trips to Los Angeles, where he stayed at the Beverly Hilton ($218), the Hotel Bel Air ($667), and the Sheraton ($147). In Beverly Hills, he dined at Maestro's Steakhouse ($450) and the Peninsula ($537).

Donors sometimes tire of contributing to the same campaigns over and over, so in 2005 Perata made things easier by creating another committee, Rebuilding California, to support a series of statewide bond measures the following year. The committee raised $9.2 million, but because success wasn't a sure thing this time, Perata had to spend most of it on actual campaigns. He did, however, siphon off $35,670 for living large.

This year, Senator Perata has indicated he plans to mount at least three more campaigns for the February 2008 primary — a healthcare initiative, a term-limits extension measure, and a referendum on the Iraq war. If past practice is any indication, these campaigns should provide Perata with plenty of dinners, hotel stays, wine purchases, and gift giving. "When one campaign dries up, you simply open up a new one — this looks like more of living the high life," Heller said.

If the term-limits measure succeeds, Perata can forget the Board of Equalization and cruise to another four-year Senate term. The anti-Iraq war measure should boost his chances significantly. For even though it carries no weight, it will help endear him to liberals and likely increase Election Day turnout.

Indeed, the whole idea is a stroke of political genius. Consider that liberals and progressives across the state — people and organizations that don't normally donate to the moderate Perata — likely will flood the referendum campaign with donations to make a statement against President Bush. In anticipation of all that money, Perata has already transformed Rebuilding California into another committee, Leadership California, which began sending out mailers last month urging support for the antiwar measure.

It gets better. Not only will Perata have plenty of cash for his slush fund, but the antiwar referendum will make for perfect cover should Bush's Justice Department ever file corruption charges against him: He can claim political retribution.


The Investigation

How we conducted our campaign spending analysis.

Over the past three months, the Express scrutinized hard copies of Senator Perata's personal campaign expense reports totaling more than two thousand pages. We then created an Excel spreadsheet logging every expense that didn't appear to be directly related to actual campaigning. The result is available for download on our news blog 92510 at EastBayExpress.com. It includes items Perata labeled as "fund-raising" because it was impossible to distinguish where the fund-raising stopped and the partying began. To determine whether the spending patterns were unusual, we sampled campaign expense reports from other top senators, but found no others who appeared to have such extensive expenditures. Two political watchdogs, Bob Stern and Doug Heller, also expressed surprise that any legislator would spend more than $1 million on dining out, hotels, gift giving, etc., over the period in question.

That's Just Part of It

Add $164,000 in unexplained credit-card expenses.

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