Living Large 

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

Page 3 of 6

When the senator has a party, a favorite venue is the Bellevue, one of Oakland's oldest and most venerable private clubs. Set alongside Lake Merritt, with private terraces and expansive views, the Bellevue is one of the premier party locales in the East Bay. Over the years, Perata's tab, including his monthly membership to the club, totaled $37,844.

To some observers, Perata's spending crosses the line. "Campaign funds are not supposed to sustain your personal lifestyle," said Doug Heller, executive director of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a liberal consumers' watchdog group. "But clearly he's using them to live the life of a Roman senator."

Perata's spokesman Kinney maintained that lobbyists and the senator's other dining companions "expect" to eat at fine restaurants. Perata, he said, derives no personal benefit, or even pleasure, from the expensive dinners and upscale parties; he would prefer to stay home and watch the Raiders on TV. "Don Perata is the consummate public servant," Kinney said. "He leads an extremely modest lifestyle. He lives in a modest 1,200-square-foot home."

When this "modest" Raiders fan travels, however, he lodges far from Motel 6. Perata has stayed at the exquisite Lodge at Pebble Beach ($343) and the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay ($2,499). In Los Angeles, he usually checks into hotels where you're likely to spot Hollywood celebrities. His favorites are the Four Seasons ($425 a night) and the Beverly Hilton (single room: $275; junior suite: $450).

The senator also enjoys posh hotels in the Bay Area and Sacramento, although he owns homes in both places. His total Bay Area hotel stays, including the Claremont Resort and Spa and the Waterfront Plaza Hotel, both in Oakland, were at least $6,007. In Sacramento, Perata has owned a condo not far from the statehouse since 1997, yet he repeatedly stays at the Hyatt and other nice hotels there. He spent $1,876 in the state capital for "candidate lodging" or "candidate travel."

When asked why the senator would check into a hotel when he owns a home just a few minutes away, Kinney said that on some occasions, Perata has been forced to stay at a hotel because his "residence is otherwise unavailable." He refused to elaborate.

And on occasions when his condo was available? "It can't be that he had too many drinks," one Sacramento source said. "You can call the sergeant-at-arms 24 hours a day." Indeed, the state Senate's sergeant-at-arms maintains a round-the-clock chauffeur service 365 days a year for inebriated legislators.

"A Great Customer"

Whatever the reason for the hotel stays, there's no doubt Don Perata enjoys a good bottle of wine. "He loves wine, red wine," said a Sacramento source. "Rosenblum Cellars is his favorite." Rosenblum is an award-winning local winery, best known for its Zinfandels. It even has a tasting room in Perata's hometown of Alameda.

When the busy politician doesn't have time to drive to the island, he dashes over to his favorite neighborhood wine store, Montclair Village Wines, a few minutes from his Oakland house. Perata uses campaign funds to buy wine there several times a year. Kinney said most of it was for fund-raisers. Yet over the past decade, Perata has also labeled these purchases "office supplies," "food," "election party," "meals and beverages," and "meeting." In all, he spent $6,814 at Montclair Village Wines, while his total alcohol purchases came to $11,738. "I would call that an abuse of the process," said Heller, who is a close follower of politicians throughout the state.

Perata also spends campaign funds on basic household items such as groceries and coffee. His neighborhood grocery store and coffee shop, Village Market and Terrace Coffee and Gifts, are his favorites. They sit side by side on Broadway Terrace, a short drive from his house. Over the years, he has charged his campaign accounts $5,007 for groceries from Village Market, and $6,600 for items purchased from Terrace Coffee.

In addition, the senator likes to buy books, greeting cards, cigars, and hardware, as well as magazine and newspaper subscriptions. His favorites, in order, are Diesel Bookstore in Rockridge ($5,084), Greetings on Piedmont Avenue ($2,937), Home Depot in Emeryville ($1,163), LaSalle Cigars in Montclair ($650), The Economist ($2,253), and The New York Times ($1,256). Are these legitimate campaign expenses? Stern, the former FPPC general counsel, said they could be for gifts or bona fide office supplies.

But a closer examination of other seemingly legitimate campaign expenses raises similar questions. For example, Perata charges his personal cell phone (Cingular Wireless, $17,046, and Cellular One, $8,226) to his reelection campaigns even though he hasn't truly campaigned for elected office in nine years. Or consider the tens of thousands of dollars he has spent on basic office supplies. On the surface, these expenses may look legit — until you realize that Perata's campaigns don't have offices.

Might he be buying supplies for his state Senate offices? Unlikely. According to Dina Hidalgo, the Senate's director of personnel, supplies for each senator's office are purchased internally through the state government.

Perhaps Perata is buying supplies related to campaign mailers? Possibly. But consider the fact that his various campaigns paid his son, Nick Perata, more than $1.2 million from 2000 through 2004 to do his mailers and consulting work for him.

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