This article was reported in partnership with The Sacramento Bee.
In the years since Anthony Rendon rose to power as speaker of the California Assembly, nonprofits associated with his wife, Annie Lam, have received more than $500,000 in donations and event sponsorships from dozens of companies with business before the Legislature.
Nonprofits are not required to publicly disclose their donors. But since 2016, when Rendon ascended to the speakership, five nonprofits where Lam is employed have received donations or sponsorships from more than 50 entities, according to public records, promotional flyers and interviews.
More than half of the sponsors and donors are corporations that regularly lobby the Legislature on bills that have the potential to affect their bottom lines, records show. Other sponsors include lobbyists, lawyers and a handful of public agencies.
Meanwhile, Rendon was overseeing votes on legislation that some of the companies fiercely opposed.
The donations and sponsorships – led by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. – aren’t illegal, experts said, but raise questions about whether Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat, can be influenced by those who support organizations his wife leads. They also reveal limitations in the state’s political finance laws, which don’t extend to this kind of fundraising by nonprofits with a Capitol connection.
Both Lam and Rendon said he has no role in the fundraising process. Rendon also said the donations have never influenced legislation or the decisions he’s made as speaker.
“There is no connection between any donations to Annie’s nonprofits and what happens with respect to legislation,” he said.
Twenty-one of the companies that have supported Lam’s nonprofits have also made a total of more than $350,000 in campaign donations to Rendon since he first ran for the Assembly in 2012, records show.
These political donations ramped up after he became speaker. As the Assembly’s leader, Rendon oversees the legislative agenda and has an outsized influence over which bills do, or don’t, pass his chamber.
Rendon’s political donors also showed up as sponsors of the nonprofits associated with Lam.
A former legislative staffer and daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Lam has spent years building Asian and Pacific Islander representation in California politics. The organizations she’s founded, runs or works for include APIs Mobilize, the League of California Cities Women’s Caucus, the League of California Cities Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus Institute and the Pacific Bridge Arts Foundation.
Most companies don’t report how much they donate, but certain top spenders do.
From 2017 through 2019, PG&E donated a total of $360,000 to three nonprofits associated with Lam, according to California Public Utilities Commission records.
The investor-owned utility supported the nonprofits as the company faced legislative scrutiny for its role in a series of deadly wildfires. Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric (a subsidiary of Sempra Energy) and SoCalGas also supported some of the nonprofits.
AT&T and Comcast sponsored nonprofits during years when they were lobbying on broadband internet measures.
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo supported the nonprofits while fighting to stop a proposed tax on sugary soft drinks, according to lobbying reports.
Two companies that were promoting a tax relief measure for marijuana businesses also sponsored events.
Four municipal garbage companies – California Waste Solutions, Recology, Republic Services and Athens Services – that lobbied on bills to promote recycling also were nonprofit sponsors. The NFL’s Los Angeles Rams sponsored two events while lobbying on a bill to make youth football safer.
Other supporters with legislative interests included Wells Fargo, the Walt Disney Co., the California Apartment Association and the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, who operate a casino in Temecula.
In an interview, Lam said her marriage has nothing to do with the companies’ charity. Instead, she said, it’s the nonprofits’ mission that attracts donors.
“We do really great work,” Lam said.
All the companies that responded to requests for comment also denied any correlation between their support of the nonprofits and bills in the Capitol. They said Rendon did not request the donations.
Instead, most said they backed the nonprofits’ mission to amplify Asian and marginalized voices in public policy.
PG&E said it supported the nonprofits for their “good work on behalf of California’s diverse communities” – not to win political favor.
Neither Rendon “nor anyone on his behalf has reached out about donations,” spokesperson Lynsey Paulo wrote in an email.
Politicians are legally obligated to report charitable contributions they personally solicit, but not contributions solicited by their spouses. The donations to the nonprofits associated with Lam don’t appear to violate political finance rules, experts said.
Bob Stern, former general counsel for the Fair Political Practices Commission and a co-author of the 1974 Political Reform Act, said that if Lam is fundraising on her own, Rendon doesn’t have to report the donations. Stern said the donations are rather an issue of “appearance.”
“There’s nothing illegal about this,” he said. “The real question is if he weren’t speaker, would the nonprofits be getting this money? And the answer is probably no.”
Lam and the nonprofits
Lam’s political career also began in the Assembly, more than a decade before her husband was selected to lead the chamber as its speaker.
She first served as a legislative aide in the early 2000s to Assemblywoman Judy Chu, now a congresswoman. Lam advanced to legislative director for Mike Eng, Chu’s husband, after he was elected to the Assembly in 2006.
Rendon and Lam married in 2014 in a private ceremony presided over by former Assembly Speaker John Pérez.
Lam also runs her own consulting firm, where she’s a “recognized expert in public and nonprofit service,” according to her APIs Mobilize biography. Her work includes leading organizations that develop and support youth in underrepresented communities, which Lam called her “passion.”
It’s also been a lucrative business.
California politicians are required to estimate their spouses’ incomes on annual statements of economic interest.
The year he became speaker, Rendon reported his wife had consulted for the League of California Cities Asian Pacific Islander Caucus. Rendon reported that his 50% share of his wife’s income was in the range between $10,000 and $100,000, indicating that his wife had earned up to $199,000, with at least $20,000 coming from one nonprofit whose supporters had business at the Capitol.
In the three years that followed, Rendon reported that Lam began working at four more organizations that collected money from his donors.
By 2019, his filings indicate that he earned more than $100,000 from her business, meaning her earnings had topped $200,000. Rendon’s report indicates that his wife earned more than $20,000 from each of the five nonprofits. The report does not require him to be more specific. Lam declined to say how much she made.
In 2017, Lam went to work for the League of California Cities Women’s Caucus. She’s now the executive director of both the Asian Pacific Islander and Women’s Caucuses, which were set up to encourage “city officials who share common interests or characteristics to connect with one another,” according to the league’s website.
In a 2018 Sacramento Business Journal report, Lam said she had bumped fundraising by 768% for the API Caucus and boosted the Women’s Caucus budget by 530%.
Lam also began working in 2017 for the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus Institute. Chu founded the organization to foster new leaders in the Capitol, and Lam is the current executive director.
Lam founded APIs Mobilize around 2015, she said, but Rendon’s filings show she began serving as its executive director in 2017. The nonprofit is set up to educate students interested in public policy, according to public records. The group hosts programs in Northern and Southern California, internships at the Capitol and learning sessions with community leaders.
She began working in development at the Pacific Bridge Arts Foundation in 2019, Rendon’s filings show. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit each year hosts Identity LA, a music and cultural festival where Asian and Pacific Islander entertainers, chefs and artists from the city showcase their craft. The organization also awards scholarships for students pursuing musical arts degrees.
Lam said many corporate sponsors donated to some of the nonprofits before she married Rendon in 2014.
Some of the nonprofits have access at the Capitol, too.
Through a partnership with UC Davis, APIs Mobilize has recently launched a state Capitol internship program. Selected students will get to work in Rendon’s office.
A top spender
The nonprofits’ biggest donor is PG&E.
Filings with the Public Utilities Commission show that from 2017 through 2019, PG&E gave $270,000 to APIs Mobilize, $70,000 to the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus Institute and $20,000 to the Pacific Bridge Arts Foundation.
The investor-owned utility company declared bankruptcy in January 2019 following a wave of wildfires its poorly managed equipment helped spark in 2017 and 2018.
During the years it supported the nonprofits, PG&E also donated about $8,000 to Rendon’s campaign, according to court records, and lobbied the Assembly on measures affecting its profits.
It was a time of crisis for PG&E.
A federal jury had declared the utility guilty of felonies for a 2010 natural gas explosion in San Bruno, which killed eight. Investigators from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had blamed the utility’s downed power lines for the deadly Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties in 2015, court records show, and for a dozen more wildfires that swept across Northern California in 2017.
Then, in 2018, PG&E was blamed for sparking one of the most devastating blazes in California history. The Camp Fire in Butte County killed at least 85 people and ravaged the small town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The company filed for bankruptcy, citing $30 billion in liabilities from fires.
But in the summer of 2019, the Legislature bailed out PG&E, fast-tracking a measure
that set up a $21 billion wildfire fund as a safety net for investor-owned utilities – and,
critics said, saddling customers and taxpayers with financial responsibility for future wildfires.
The measure whipped through the Legislature in two weeks and passed overwhelmingly.
The measure also benefited two other California utilities that had donated to APIs Mobilize: Southern California Gas Co. gave $15,000 from 2017 to 2019. In 2017, Southern California Edison gave $5,000.
Edison International said it donated $5,000 to APIs Mobilize as part of a charitable effort to “build strong communities.” The company didn’t have contact with Rendon about the donation, spokesperson Taelor I. Bakewell wrote in an email.
San Diego Gas & Electric Co. said it gave $7,500 to the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus Institute to encourage diversity in leadership.
Gov. Gavin Newsom was the point man on the rushed legislation, Assembly Bill 1054, and Rendon said both Assembly members and senators negotiated a final deal.
But the powerful Assembly speaker played an important role, said San Diego lawyer Michael J. Aguirre, who is suing the state on behalf of clients who claim that the bailout amounted to an illegal gift of public funds.
The bill could not have been fast-tracked and would never have obtained the
supermajority vote needed for quick passage without Rendon’s support, Aguirre said
in an interview.
“They could not have done it without Rendon being on board,” he said. “This was a
Lam declined to specify how much other companies donate compared to PG&E, and records are not complete. But the utility wasn’t the only corporation donating at critical moments.
Comcast donated to APIs Mobilize in 2019 and has been among the League of California Cities caucuses’ sponsors since at least 2017, social media posts show.
The corporation has lobbied in recent years on the implementation of the state’s consumer privacy regulations and Assembly Bill 5, the 2019 landmark gig economy law that changed how companies classify their workers.
Comcast spokesperson Joan Hammel said donation data wasn’t available. But she said that the company’s position on legislation has never been tied to its support of the nonprofits and that Rendon never coordinated the donations.
Instead, Hammel said, Comcast has a “deep and longstanding commitment to supporting Asian American communities.”
AT&T also supported the nonprofits during Rendon’s speakership. Since 2019, the company cut checks worth $95,000 to the five nonprofits with ties to Lam, spokesperson Steven Maviglio said.
In a statement, Maviglio said AT&T’s support of the Asian Pacific Islander community in politics “predates Speaker Rendon’s tenure.” Maviglio said AT&T has supported the API Legislative Caucus Institute since 2013, and the League of California Cities API Caucus since 2014.
“There are no dots to connect between these contributions and legislation,” Maviglio said. “Period.”
Both companies donated while embroiled in legislative fights.
In 2019, the companies supported legislation that opponents said would have “protected their broadband monopolies” by extending a law that curbed state oversight of the communications marketplace. In that case, the critics prevailed.
The telecommunications industry earned a victory in 2020 when the Assembly killed Senate Bill 1130, a proposal to expand broadband technology in underserved areas of California.
AT&T didn’t lobby against the bill, but Comcast and trade groups did.
SB 1130 would have modified how the state distributes funds for high-speed internet projects and given local governments more of the market share.
Supporters argued that the legislation would have helped close the “digital divide” contributing to learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The opposition contended that the proposed funding changes would stymie the state’s effort to provide internet in rural areas by adding bureaucratic layers to the California Public Utilities Commission.
The bill sailed through the Senate before the Assembly blocked its passage in the final days of the 2020 session.
Sen. Lena Gonzalez, the Long Beach Democrat who wrote the proposal, blamed Rendon in a press release for the bill’s demise, calling his decision not to prioritize SB 1130 “short-sighted” and an insult to their constituents.
“I guess what is disappointing is that we share the same backyard. I advocate for (Rendon’s) district, too, because it’s my district,” she said in an interview. “It’s just disappointing that someone can’t pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to make it through.’ ”
Public interest groups that monitor campaign finance violations wouldn’t see these donations on the records they regularly review. That’s because Rendon does not have to report his spouse’s fundraising and sponsorships as a potential conflict of interest.
But the donations should make Rendon and Lam “concerned about the appearance of impropriety,” said John Pelissero, a senior scholar at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
The donation patterns might be a coincidence, Pelissero added, but it could appear that the lobbyists are trying to gain influence with Rendon by donating to the nonprofits.
Lam said she isn’t focused on “what’s happening on the legislative side” of the companies donating. Even so, she added, Rendon “votes on legislation based on his principles and values,” not who is supporting the organizations.
“They are supporting the work that we do because of the good work we are doing to change lives for the better,” she said. “Just because of who I’m married to doesn’t mean they should stop supporting the organizations.”
Stern, the former Fair Political Practices Commission counsel, said that because nonprofit connections are becoming more common in the Capitol, it could be beneficial to expand the fundraising disclosure law. That becomes more important if spouses and lawmakers themselves are raising money from groups that hire lobbyists in Sacramento.
“That seems to be becoming the trend, and then money being given by people with legislation pending in the Legislature,” Stern said. “There’s nothing wrong with it. The only question is if the disclosure law should be extended.”
Rendon said lawmakers are briefed annually on ethics regulations and reporting requirements. He said he isn’t sure the law needs to be changed to include donations to nonprofits connected with a legislator’s spouse.
“I’m not going to speculate on broad, vague ideas,” Rendon said. “But as far as my decision-making process, there’s never a connection between what happens with nonprofit giving and any decisions that I make.”
This article was edited by Amy Chance at The Sacramento Bee and Esther Kaplan at Reveal and copy edited by Nikki Frick at Reveal.