By Brooke Williams
Congressman Bob Filner is one of the most prolific sponsors of new laws in the House of Representatives. His legislation has advocated for veterans, health care professionals and government employees. Those who like his bills or have benefited from his actions have generously contributed to his campaigns.
This is business as usual for a Congressman with a well established seat. But Filner, a Democrat representing Chula Vista, National City, the southern half of the city of San Diego and all of Imperial County, does stand out.
He calls himself “California’s Border Congressman,” but Filner has sponsored more legislation in the past several sessions to help individuals—mostly immigrants—than to change immigration law or affect the border. He’s sponsored the largest number of private bills in the House in recent years.
About 30 percent of the money Filner’s raised during the past three years has come from entities that lobbied in favor of at least one of his bills or benefited from his actions as a lawmaker. That percentage is considered “sizeable” among campaign finance experts.
Some of these same supporters are getting behind his run for San Diego mayor in next year’s election.
Investigative Newsource examined the 133 bills Filner introduced during the most recent three congressional sessions, lobbying involved, companies and organizations that could benefit, as well as campaign contributions. Newsource also dug into Filner’s earmark requests and his official logs of privately funded trips.
The scrutiny is meant to pull back the curtain on legislation and influence and enable voters to assess Filner’s priorities against their own, as he gears up a mayoral campaign.
Brian Adams, professor of political science at San Diego State University, says it’s vital to examine a politician’s “actual behavior, not just speeches.”
“Who he is helping and who is helping him provides a lot of insight into what he truly believes and what he is likely to do if he is elected mayor,” Adams said.
To help you follow the money, Newsource assembled Filner’s recent legislation, lobbying activity and campaign contributions here.
Despite multiple phone inquiries and email messages during the past six weeks, Filner and his staff did not respond to Newsource.
Filner has sponsored an extraordinary number of bills. Most went nowhere, which is not unusual in Congress where in each of the past six years, less than 5 percent of bills introduced have become law.
Filner has introduced more legislation than any other representative in the House this year and more than all but two representatives in the previous Congress.
He sponsored three times as many bills as any other San Diego representative in the past and current congress.
Out of the 133 bills Filner sponsored in the past three congressional sessions, four became law.
Sarah Binder, senior fellow and expert in Congress at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C., said agendas can be shaped by committee assignments—in Filner’s case, more than four years as a leader of Veteran’s Affairs—as well as local issues, she said.
He also has been in Congress for nearly two decades, and longtime members tend to reintroduce the same bills in subsequent sessions, she said. This is true for Filner, who introduced at least 20 duplicates in 2011, such as the Fair Taxes for Seniors Act and Chiropractic Care Available to All Veterans Act.
Introducing legislation that’s not controversial is one way to respond to local issues, establish a reputation for expertise in one area, and build a career, Binder said.
“Sometimes we call this “cheap talk” or “position taking,” she explained. “It doesn’t take a lot of time, energy or resources to introduce a bill, typically if you’ve introduced it in the past.”
Influence and cash
Investigative Newsource reviewed every piece of Filner legislation during the past three sessions, tracked every group that lobbied and identified related campaign contributors. Here is what we found:
- Filner has introduced 20 private bills and resolutions since January 2009. These proposed new laws are relatively uncommon and are aimed at helping just one or two individuals or a company. In this congress and the past one, Filner has introduced far more legislation benefiting individuals than any other representative. member.
- Companies, unions and other groups reported lobbying on about 58 percent of the new laws Filner proposed. Lobbying, which is defined loosely as contacting one or more lawmakers with intent to influence, is a billion-dollar industry in the nation’s Capital. Currently, there are about 22 lobbyists for every member of Congress.
- Entities that lobbied on his bills or gained from his actions gave Filner’s campaign and Political Action Committee at least $330,000 in the past three years. That’s about 30 percent of the $1 million he raised during that time. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., which tracks money in federal politics, characterized the percentage as “sizable,” given what she’s seen in looking at contributions and earmarks.
- Many of the groups that lobbied in favor of Filner’s bills represented health care professionals and government employees. He proposed new laws that would benefit both. He advocated on behalf of companies based in San Diego—though not always in his district—including defense contractors, media firm WealthTV and Duty Free Americas.
- Nearly half of Filner’s bills involved Veteran’s Affairs—no surprise as Filner was chairman and is ranking Democrat of the Veteran Affairs Committee. Military and veterans groups reported lobbying most heavily on his legislation, but they’ve contributed little to his campaigns.
- A variety of groups paid a total of $20,913 for Filner to take trips—mostly abroad—during the past two years. None of the trip sponsors were among his top contributors or reported lobbying on his recent legislation.
- Neither Filner nor his high-level staffers report any personal financial ties to his top contributors or to those who lobbied legislation he sponsored, according to disclosure reports filed with the House Clerk.
All but three of the 20 private bills Filner sponsored in the three most recent congressional sessions were intended to help immigrants stay in this country legally. Another two attempted to help people wrongfully convicted and imprisoned in Mexico, and the other would have benefited an inventor and drug manufacturer.
Read details about Filner’s private bills here.
Filner’s general legislative agenda has included expanding health care options available to veterans, but also benefiting optometrists, chiropractors and dentists. All three groups have Political Action Committees that contribute millions of dollars each election to federal candidates on both sides of the aisle. Combined, they gave Filner $55,800 during past three elections.
Filner also is a friend to realtors. The East San Diego County Association of REALTORS features him on its Facebook page, boasting about its success in getting him to cosponsor legislation that would benefit realtors.
The National Association of Realtors—which is a top donor to Filner’s congressional career with contributions totaling $71,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—has lobbied in support of dozens of bills that Filner has backed. Real estate professionals have contributed $4,700 to his mayoral campaign so far.
Sara Wiskerchen, spokeswoman for the National Association of Realtors, declined to talk about specific legislation but said, “NAR has supported Congressman Filner in the past for his long history of supporting real estate and key housing issues that encourage homeownership and are important to consumers.”
Legislation isn’t the only way Filner’s campaign donors have benefited from his role as a lawmaker. During the past several years, the congressman also has secured millions in earmarks—money set aside for a specific benefit—that could benefit two of his top donors. He also has advocated for other top contributors.
Some of Filner’s top contributors are based in San Diego County or have a large presence there, including defense contracting companies Cubic Corp. and Accurate Engineering, as well as Wealth TV, a cable station.
Adams, professor at SDSU and expert in campaign finance, said examining past earmarks provides insight on how a candidate might act if elected to office.
“You can tell a lot about a politician by looking at who his friends are,” he said. “And you can tell a lot about who his real friends are by looking at who he puts in earmarks for.”
Adams said earmarks, which are now banned in Congress, can be especially concerning if the recipient isn’t based in the lawmaker’s district or if the project doesn’t relate to a committee the lawmaker sits on.
One earmark Filner sponsored was for Cubic Corp., a technology company based in Kearny Mesa—outside his district. Cubic has received about $3 billion in federal contracts—mostly with the military—during the past decade, according to federal spending data.
Filner secured an $800,000 earmark for Cubic in fiscal 2010, the same year the company first appeared among his top ten contributors—ranking 3rd to his campaign with a total of $10,000, according to federal elections data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Its executives gave $6,000, and its PAC gave $4,000 more.
The earmark was for Cubic to upgrade an intelligence data system for the Navy. So far, the Navy has not executed the contract, and Cubic has not received the money, said Jan Stevens, corporate communications manager for the company.
Stevens said Cubic has asked Filner to set aside money, but there is no link between the campaign contributions and earmark.
Cubic executives have not reported donating to Filner’s mayoral campaign, according to disclosure reports.
Border business and contributions
Some of Filner’s top contributors in Congress are significant donors to his campaign for mayor. Executives of the Duty Free Americas, and members of their families, each have donated $1,000 toward his race for mayor, totaling $4,000 so far. Filner also has transfered at least $36,000 from his congressional committee to his mayoral campaign account.
Duty Free Americas’ executives gave Filner’s congressional campaigns several thousand dollars more than any other group in the previous two elections. In fact, the Florida-based company has been Filner’s third top contributor during his congressional career, behind two labor unions, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Duty Free Americas operates six duty free shops along the Mexico border in Filner’s district—three in San Ysidro, two in Calexico and one in Otay Mesa.
Joseph Kearney, senior vice president of the company, said Filner has been supportive of the company’s efforts to ensure the redevelopment of the San Ysidro border crossing doesn’t result in Duty Free Americas losing one of its stores. The company might lose 12 acres of land to the project, Kearney said.
Kearney said Duty Free and other border businesses are in favor of revamping the area but not at the cost of the vibrant shopping district that exists. He said Filner is working to balance the security needs of the country with the need to also promote trade and commerce.
In fiscal 2008, Filner and Sen. Dianne Feinstein requested a $58.9 million earmark to help fund the $631 million project, according to data made available by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a federal spending watchdog group. Kearney said he knew nothing about the earmark.
Duty Free Americas has paid $420,000 since 2008 to the Normandy group, including lobbyist Henry Bonilla, a former congressman from Texas, to lobby Congress and the United States Border Patrol. Among other things, Bonilla reported lobbying on funding of the San Ysidro border project.
The second top contributor to Filner’s campaign committee in the last election was Wealth TV, a family owned cable station based in San Diego. It offers programming on shopping, travel, cars and boats, among other things.
Executives of Wealth TV and its parent company, Herring Broadcasting Inc., gave Filner 11 contributions in 2010 totaling $12,100.
Wealth TV also registered to lobby for the first time in 2010. It reported spending $40,000 lobbying Congress on competition and broadband policy, as well as the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal. Wealth TV publicly opposed that merger, which the FCC approved in January 2011.
Filner was outspoken against the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal and wrote the FCC expressing concerns about it in October 2010.
He also wrote a letter to the FCC inquiring about the status of a “long standing” complaint Wealth TV had filed against Comcast, Time Warner and others with the FCC alleging the companies were discriminating by not airing its programs. The case is ongoing.
Robert Herring, co-founder and CEO of Wealth TV, said he and his sons went to other San Diego delegates but Filner was “the only one that would write a letter or to try and help us in any way.”
Brooke Williams is Investigative Newsource’s Washington, D.C. correspondent.