Karen Bass absent 29 days, still accepted per diem payments

Posted on June 5, 2010


Since Karen Bass announced her bid for Congress in February, the former speaker of the state Assembly has been missing from the chamber she once led more than she has been there. Bass nonetheless continued to collect the tax-free per diem payments that lawmakers are given to cover expenses associated with attending legislative sessions. Since mid-February, the Los Angeles Democrat has missed more than 60% of Assembly sessions, spending much of the time in her district. She was in the Capitol all last week and cast hundreds of votes as lawmakers raced to meet a key legislative deadline. But that was her first full week in Sacramento since she announced her congressional candidacy. The absences meant Bass often was not around while lawmakers began sorting out how to address the state’s massive budget shortfall, as well as the details of substantial legislation recently passed by the Assembly. Bass collected a per diem of $141.80 per day for 29 days she was not in Sacramento, amounting to  payment of more than $4,000.

Bass’ per diem payment is legal, but “if you’re claiming per diem and the Legislature is in session, you really ought to be there,” said Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego.

The money is ostensibly paid to legislators to compensate for the costs they incur in traveling from their homes to Sacramento. But legislators can collect the tax-free money even when they are at home, so long as they are on official legislative business, a very broadly defined category. Bass has claimed that the vast majority of her absences involve official business. No other Assembly member, however, claimed more than six such absences during the same time period. Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Bass, said that every day the former speaker was missing from Sacramento and received a per diem she was working in her district, including attending community meetings, briefings with staff and building support for her legislation.

“Speaker Emeritus Bass keeps a strong line between legislative business and campaign matters,” Murphy said.

Bass is the heavy favorite to replace the retiring Democratic Rep. Diane Watson, a Democrat, in a district that includes Culver City, Ladera Heights, Hancock Park, Hollywood and Silver Lake. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic in registration, and her opponents in the Democratic primary are little known. Nonetheless, Bass has been doing some campaigning. On at least two occasions, she has drawn the per diem on a day she held a campaign event. On March 3, Bass stood on the steps of City Hall with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to announce his endorsement. Two weeks earlier, she was joined by a trio of City Council members — Eric Garcetti, Paul Krekorian and Tom LaBonge — to announce their backing. Murphy said that Bass’ receipt of the per diem on those days was proper because she did official work during other parts of the day.

“During the course of the day, if she took an hour off during her lunch break to take part in a campaign event, then that would have, accordingly, been during a lunch period,” Murphy said. “… By no means does that indicate she was not involved in legislative work in the rest of the course of the day.”

Murphy cited meetings Bass held with Villaraigosa and City Atty. Carmen Trutanich on those days. Others, however, criticized her acceptance of the payments.

“The whole point of a per diem is to pay for their travel away from their districts,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “It’s a problem if a legislator is collecting per diem when they’re not actually away from their districts.”

Murphy noted that Bass, who served as speaker from early 2008 until March, was in Sacramento more than almost any other lawmaker in the last two years, navigating a series of state budget crises. “Now that’s she’s speaker emeritus, she’s spending time working on legislative issues in her district,” Murphy said.


Posted in: The Anti News