California

Ricardo Lara’s ‘climate’ trip to New York included some fundraising on the side

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, authored Senate Bill 174, which would amend existing state law to allow the appointment of any resident over the age of 18 to a civil office regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, authored Senate Bill 174, which would amend existing state law to allow the appointment of any resident over the age of 18 to a civil office regardless of citizenship or immigration status. aseng@sacbee.com

A taxpayer-funded trip that California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara took to New York earlier this year coincided with a fundraising trip by his campaign consultant, according to records obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

Both Lara and his since-terminated consultant Dan Weitzman attended an April fundraiser in New York, Lara campaign spokeswoman Robin Swanson confirmed Wednesday.

Days later, Lara reported that he accepted $46,500 from donors connected to New York-area insurance companies, breaking a campaign promise he made when running for the post in 2018 not to accept industry money.

Newly released expense records show the state paid more than $2,000 for Lara to attend “various climate meetings” in New York from April 9 to 12. The expenses included Uber rides, hotel costs and meals.

Department spokesman Michael Soller said Lara’s six climate appointments were with “major environmental groups and insurers” like the Environmental Defense Fund and New York Life Insurance Company.

Finance reports show Lara’s campaign reimbursed Weitzman for a $661 April 9 flight to New York “to attend (a) fundraiser.” Weitzman did not respond to requests for comment.

More than $30,000 in donations a week after the trip came from Stephen and Carole Acunto.

Stephen Acunto has been referred to in media reports as the spokesman for Applied Underwriters, a workers compensation agency that Lara is overseeing the sale of in California. Acunto is also the founder of a publishing company comprised of “media, insurance and capital markets” groups, and is described as vice president on the Insurance Federation of New York’s website.

Theresa DeBarbrie also donated $15,500 to Lara’s campaign, and is the wife of a former Applied Underwriters senior vice president who filled that post from 2000 to 2008. Her husband, Carl DeBarbrie, is the current executive vice president of Remco, an insurance agency based in Hempstead, New York.

The DeBarbries and Acuntos did not respond to The Sacramento Bee’s requests for comment.

Swanson said she could not confirm additional details about the fundraiser — including the event’s location, how much tickets cost, who invited Lara and whether he met the executives and their wives at the event.

Lara has since returned the donations and apologized for accepting them. He detailed in a letter to consumer advocates on Sept. 3 an action plan to remedy his mistakes.

“This meeting should not have happened,” Swanson said. “The contributions that later came in as a result of this meeting were returned, and the commissioner has apologized. That is why he has set up the strictest of vetting protocols for future meetings and contributions.”

Though he was serving as his own campaign treasurer ⁠— a post that typically vets donations and ensures contributions don’t carry political repercussions ⁠— Lara shifted blame to his campaign team after news broke this summer that he violated his campaign promise not to take industry money.

“I believe effective public service demands constant adherence to the highest ethical standards,” Lara wrote in the letter. “But during my campaign and first six months in office, my campaign operation scheduled meetings and solicited campaign contributions that did not fall in line with commitments I made to refuse contributions from the insurance industry. I take full responsibility for that and am deeply sorry.”

He also terminated Weitzman on July 28, his campaign said, and promised a “strict moratorium” on fundraising through the end of the year until his staff could strengthen donation vetting protocol.

This is not the first time Lara has faced a controversy over his fundraising.

As a senator, Lara canceled a Latino Caucus Leadership PAC fundraiser in 2013 after The Bee reported that the owner of the Las Vegas casino hosting the event stood to benefit from a gambling bill awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

The New York trip was also followed by a March 12 luncheon in Sacramento with insurance executives that Weitzman told Lara was an exercise in “relationship-building” for campaign purposes, records show.

Calendars obtained by The Bee indicate Weitzman scheduled a March 12 lunch with Applied Underwriters executives and the CEO of the company purchasing a portion of the workers compensation agency to “benefit” Lara’s 2022 re-election campaign.

Lara has said the meetings did nothing to influence decisions he made this summer to intervene on behalf of Applied Underwriters in cases before his department related to complaints against its workers compensation policies.

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.
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