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Fired Worker Takes On Big-Time CA Lobbyist

SACRAMENTO (CN) - California lobbyist Kevin Sloat and his firm Sloat Higgins Jensen & Associates fired an employee for refusing to facilitate "hundreds of thousands of dollars" worth of illegal contributions to elected officials, the woman claims in court.

Rhonda Smira sued Sloat and his lobbying firm in Superior Court, alleging wrongful termination, defamation, and violations of the Business Code and the Political Reform Act.

Sloat is a heavy hitter in California politics; Sloat Higgins is one of state's the five largest lobbying firms. Its clients include Fortune 500, energy, utility and insurance companies, including Anthem Blue Cross, Dish Network and Pacific Gas and Electric, according to the company's web page.

Smira claims in the lawsuit that Sloat, despite its knowledge of the law and regulations of the Political Reform Act, has been making illegal nonmonetary campaign contributions since at least 2000, the year she was hired.

Sloat and his firm "have hosted hundreds of fundraising events in which defendants illegally contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of elected officials, including but not limited to, 11 Senators, 26 Assembly men/women, and various other high-ranking public officials and representatives," Smira says in the lawsuit.

Sloat regularly hosted elaborate fund raisers at his mansion in Sacramento, in the firm's offices, or at a local wine bar, Smira says. Sloat never charged for use of the facilities, and provided free catering, decorations, imported cigars, expensive bottles of wine, and high-end scotches and whiskeys, all paid for by the firm, according to the lawsuit.

The fund raisers were often hosted for elected officials who would be hearing bills sponsored by, supported by or opposed by Sloat's clients, and for officials in special positions of power, including state Senate and Assembly leadership posts. A typical event would result in $10,000 to $50,000 in contributions for an elected official, Smira says in the complaint.

Sloat had a list of approximately 30 clients who were invited to every fund raiser. Smira was told to invite them "because Sloat said they were his 'go to' clients and their campaign contribution budgets were actually 'his' to distribute at 'his' discretion," she says in the lawsuit.

Smira claims that Sloat saw those people as "unsophisticated and clients who did not ask why they were making contributions to the candidates. The more sophisticated clients who required background or some rationale as to why defendant was asking them to contribute were only rarely invited," she says.

The expenses of hosting fund raisers are nonmonetary campaign contributions, but neither Sloat nor the elected officials would declare the contributions to the Fair Political Practices Commission or the Secretary of State, Smira says. She says she checked with the firm's legal counsel, who confirmed that the contributions were improper.

Smira claims she told Sloat about her concerns and urged him to begin charging the officials for rent and other costs of the fundraisers, but he ignored her complaints and told her to "never talk to him again" on the subject.

In addition to the fund raisers, Sloat made other illegal campaign contributions by providing tickets to professional sporting events, Smira says. Senators, Assembly members, legislative staff and administrative staff were given floor tickets to Sacramento Kings games, and tickets to the San Francisco Giants home playoff games in 2010, according to the complaint.

Sloat also provided free golf outings at a casino owned by an Indian tribe the firm represented, where the officials and their staff also were treated to free concerts, Smira claims.

Sloat's other illegal contributions included paying for Cuban artists to travel to the United States and sell their art for half price to an Assembly member, and hosting expensive dinners paid for entirely by the firm's credit card, according to the lawsuit.

Smira says she was expected to make the arrangements for these gifts and to process the payments and record them in the firm's ledgers as "business expenses" for tax purposes.

She was told never to record who attended or to request reimbursement from any of the elected officials or candidates, she says in the complaint.

Smira says she told Sloat many times "that this was an illegal action and a violation of PRA [the Political Reform Act]. At first defendant told her, 'if I don't report and there is no written record and they don't report it, then it didn't happen.'"

Smira claims she continued to notify Sloat "of her concerns about the illegality of making, arranging and not reporting all of the above mentioned gifts. Each time, defendant expressed great displeasure at plaintiff for even suggesting he was acting illegally."

In 2012, Smira says, she'd had enough and refused to continue participating in the illegal campaign contributions. Consequently, she received a letter "notifying her of her immediate termination for undisclosed reasons," according to the complaint.

After firing her, Sloat defamed her to other employees and community members, saying she had "committed improprieties against defendants, including felony theft," Smira claims in the complaint.

She seeks punitive damages.

Also named as a plaintiff is Orleans Consulting Group.

They are represented by Jesse Ortiz.

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