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Ex-employee accuses lobbying firm of directing illegal contributions

SACRAMENTO — A lawsuit filed Christmas Eve alleges that a prominent California lobbying firm sought influence by directing illegal contributions to dozens of politicians — including nearly a third of the Legislature.

The suit charges that Sloat Higgins Jensen and Associates tapped its roster of Fortune 500 clients to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks to favored politicians — although the document fails to name any.

According to the court papers, company founder Kevin Sloat, who was once an aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson, also improperly gave gifts to legislators, instructing that no written record of them be kept.

Legislative lobbyists are barred by California law from donating to lawmakers or candidates for the Legislature, and from directing such contributions. The state also prohibits lobbyists from making, arranging or delivering gifts worth more than $10 to an elected state official in a single month.

The allegations are made by Rhonda Smira, a former employee of Sloat's firm. She contends that she was fired in late 2012 because she protested that Sloat's practices were illegal and says Sloat falsely accused her of theft.

Smira asserts wrongful termination and defamation, and seeks various damages but does not specify an amount.

Sloat did not respond to the accusations.

But in a written statement provided by a media consultant, the Sloat firm questioned Smira's credibility. The statement said Smira is under investigation by local authorities on unspecified charges.

"We are not at all surprised that the plaintiff, a former bookkeeper for the firm, has resorted to such a desperate legal maneuver," the statement said.

Shelly Orio, spokeswoman for the Sacramento County district attorney's office, said the department has a case against Smira under review.

Smira's lawyer, Jesse Ortiz, said the lawsuit lacks legislators' names because it is not his practice to spell out such supporting details in an initial pleading.

The lawsuit alleges that Sloat and his firm routinely broke state political law over the last decade, arranging private dinners, doling out floor tickets to Sacramento Kings basketball games and passes for San Francisco Giants baseball games, and setting up golf outings.

Smira, who now runs a consulting firm that specializes in campaign finance reporting and event hosting, says in the suit that she was ordered not to provide receipts for the gifts; that way, recipients could avoid disclosing the transactions on financial reports required by the state.

The lawsuit says Sloat told her: "If I don't report and there is no written record, and they don't report it, then it didn't happen."

She also says it was her job to arrange elaborate fundraisers for California lawmakers at Sloat's showcase home in Sacramento, stocked with cognac and imported cigars and served by private caterers.

Sloat's lobbying clients were expected to attend and make political donations, Smira alleges.

"A typical evening at [Sloat's] mansion would result in between $10,000 and $50,000 for an elected official," the lawsuit states, and in return the firm's clients "were promised exclusive access to the governor, legislators or candidates."

The lawsuit alleges that 37 lawmakers and an undisclosed number of other public officials received "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in illegal contributions this way.

Sloat was Wilson's chief legislative aide in the 1990s, when he "supervised legislative operations in 81 state departments in the executive branch," according to the firm's website.

Sloat's business partner, Kelly Jensen, worked in the 1990s as chief of staff for Charles Calderon, who was then state Senate majority leader. Calderon is a brother of current state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello), who is under investigation by federal authorities alleging that he engaged in influence peddling and bribery.

That investigation has spotlighted Ronald Calderon's legislative lifestyle, including travel, dinners, cigars and liquor paid for by lobbyists and their clients.

The Sloat firm reported receiving $4.4 million from four dozen clients last year to lobby state government, making it the seventh-largest concern in the Sacramento lobbying corps.

The company's client roster includes Indian casino operators, city governments, water agencies and beer makers and other large corporations.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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