Lawsuit alleges hidden Sacramento lobbying gifts

11:06 PM, Dec 27, 2013   |    comments
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A newly filed lawsuit accuses one of the state's most prominent lobbying firms with hiding gifts for years to state legislators, with an ex-employee claiming she was told if a gift wasn't reported "then it didn't happen."

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court by Rhonda Smira, a former employee of the lobbying firm Sloat, Higgins, Jensen & Associates. 

Smira, who was fired from her job with the firm in 2012, accuses firm founder Kevin Sloat of providing everything from sporting event tickets to in-kind contributions of catering and use of his Sacramento home for political fundraising events - without reporting them in state filings.

"If I don't report it and there is no written record and [lawmakers] don't report it," Smira alleges she was told by Sloat, "then it didn't happen."

Phone calls made to Sloat's office on Friday seeking comment were not returned.

So why did Smira, who worked for the lobbying firm for more than 12 years, not report any of this earlier?

"She was concerned for her job," said her attorney, Jesse Ortiz.

Smira was fired in 2012, and has included defamation in her lawsuit against Sloat and the firm. A spokesperson for the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office says a police request for an arrest warrant in connection with embezzlement is under review. Attorney Ortiz says that Smira was fired not for wrongdoing, but "because of her complaints."

In her lawsuit, the former employee says she routinely helped organize camp[aign fundraising events matching the firm's clients with key legislators.

"She was only to invite clients on [a specific] list," says the lawsuit, "because Sloat said they were his 'go to' clients and their campaign contribution budgets were actually 'his' to distribute at 'his' discretion."

State campaign finance laws place strict limits on the kinds of gifts and campaign dollars lobbyists can arrange for legislators. Gifts of more than $10 a month are prohibited.

Smira, though, accuses the firm of providing tickets to Sacramento Kings games and rounds of golf at the resort owned by the Yoche Dehe tribe in Yolo County.

The lawsuit alleges the gift giving and fundraising reached more than three dozen legislators.

"Since 2000 to the present," Smira says in the court document, "defendants have hosted hundreds of fundraising events in which defendants illegally contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of elected officials, including but not limited to, 11 senators, 26 Assembly men/women, and various other high ranking public officials and representatives."

Smira attorney Jesse Ortiz says the legislators in question "will be identified" later in the case, though he didn't specify when.

State campaign finance officials declined to comment on any possible investigation of the lobbying firm.  Sloat, Higgins, Jensen & Associates reported more than $3.5 million in lobbying fees in 2013, and lists dozens of blue-chip clients on its website.

An earlier version of this story failed to clearly explain the nature of local law enforcement's potential charges against Ms. Smira.

John Myers is News10's political editor. Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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