Far from being some secret, nefarious trip with a powerful lobbyist, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian’s visit to Cuba sounds like a typical tourist expedition to the not-so-forbidden island: part educational, part fun.
The itinerary included salsa lessons, a visit with a master cigar maker and an optional baseball game, as well as meetings on more serious subjects such as history and urban planning.
Innocuous enough, though we agree that it would have been inappropriate for Achadjian to take the trip if it had been all-expenses-paid junket funded by special interests.
It wasn’t. Achadjian initially used campaign funds for the trip, but to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, he later reimbursed his campaign out of his own pocket.
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Nor was the trip a deep, dark secret. While some other lawmakers may not be disclosing their participation in the Cuba trip, Achadjian not only confirmed that he attended, but he also shared his itinerary with The Tribune.
Yet Achadjian has come under fire from CalWatchdog.com — a website that seeks to expose “governmental waste, fraud and abuses of power” — for taking a “secret trip” with Sacramento’s “best connected lobbyist,” Darius Anderson. Anderson has been leading trips to Cuba for years through a nonprofit, Californians Building Bridges.
CalWatchdog quotes a law professor who says it raises “ethical questions” when lawmakers travel with lobbyists.
We don’t disagree. But why single out Achadjian for criticism, when it’s quite common for state lawmakers to go on educational “field trips” to faraway places such as Hawaii, Brazil, South Korea and Israel?
What we find far more troubling is that some lawmakers accept such trips as gifts.
The Sacramento Bee recently reported, for example, that Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Pomona, accepted $20,000 in “trip aid” last year, including $10,811 from the American Israel Education Foundation.
Yet Achadjian has stuck to a firm policy of accepting no gifts — and now he’s taking heat for a not-so-secret trip to Cuba, paid for out of his own pocket?
We believe that Achadjian should be commended for making an effort to see the effects of U.S. policy on Cuba with his own eyes, rather than being condemned.
If we want to re-examine the relationships between lawmakers and special interests, let’s start by cracking down on gifts and junkets, instead of putting a sinister spin on a trip to Cuba.