On a recent afternoon, more than a dozen California lawmakers gathered to discuss thorny issues impacting a state that is the cradle of technological innovation — but also suffering from wildfires, aging infrastructure and vast economic inequality. On the agenda: how to maintain wireless phone service during emergencies; how to protect Internet connection during power outages; and how work is being changed by artificial intelligence and the gig economy.  

The discussion wasn’t taking place in the state Capitol, where the public can participate in open hearings. Instead, this meeting was behind closed doors inside a Silicon Valley hotel. 

There, elected officials heard from an exclusive crowd: tech lobbyists and executives whose companies had paid for them to attend via thousands of dollars in donations to a nonprofit created by the Legislature’s Technology Caucus. For $50,000, contributors could moderate and pick a panel topic, according to an invitation to the event, billed as a “Technology Policy Summit.” A $25,000 donation allowed them to place someone on a panel. And $10,000, the invitation says, would buy attendance at the two-day event, including dinner with lawmakers at a steakhouse where the regular menu features $115 filet mignon.  

Who paid for this access to the elected officials whose agenda this year will likely include regulating massive power shutoffs and changes to a controversial labor law impacting the gig economy?

The public doesn’t get to know.

Federal law does not require charities to disclose the identities of donors, even if, like the Tech Caucus’s foundation, they are closely tied to elected officials. California law, however, does require elected officials to disclose payments made at their request to nonprofits and other organizations.

As the number of nonprofits run by lawmakers or staff has grown in the last decade, most have publicly reported donors to the state’s political ethics commission. But the Foundation for California’s Technology and Innovation Economy — formed in 2017 and overseen by three board members with close ties to the leader of the Tech Caucus, Democratic Assemblyman Evan Low of Campbell — last year stopped disclosing where its money comes from.

The choice highlights the potential for secrecy in the growing niche of nonprofits run by government officials.

“Legally they’re not required to give a lot of detail, which is one reason these groups can be so opaque and remain in the shadows,” said Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington D.C.-based group that tracks money in politics. “It just depends on what a group chooses to disclose.” 

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CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. This story was written by Laurel Rosenhall of CalMatters, who covers California politics with a focus on power and personalities in the statehouse. She joined CalMatters in 2015 after more than a dozen years as a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, where she covered state politics and education.