In Sacramento, power can often reside within families
Saga of Mia and Rob Bonta is at once familiar — and jarring
Seats in the Legislature often pass from parent to child or from husband to wife. Five members of the fabled Calderon family of Los Angeles County — three brothers, a son and current Assemblymember Lisa Calderon, the wife of a former assemblyman — have served in the Legislature. And a few years ago, Assemblymember Blanca Rubio and state Sen. Susan Rubio made history as California’s first set of sister lawmakers.
So the story of Assemblymember Mia Bonta and her husband, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, is at once familiar and also jarring.
They are Democrats from the Bay Area city of Alameda. Mia Bonta was elected in 2021 to fill the Assembly seat her husband had held after Rob Bonta was appointed attorney general. The pair have been in the news in recent weeks as reporters questioned whether it was ethical for Assemblymember Bonta to oversee taxpayer funding for the office of Atty. Gen. Bonta. Mia Bonta heads the Assembly budget panel focused on public safety, which had purview over the Department of Justice, which is led by her husband.
Political ethics experts raised concerns about the arrangement, and editorial boards criticized legislative leaders for the apparent conflict of interest. Even Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” weighed in.
“It’s a bad look and it’s only going to reinforce what happens when you have one-party rule,” he said after reporter Ashley Zavala of NBC’s Sacramento affiliate broke the story.
Assemblymember Bonta eventually said she would recuse herself from decisions affecting the Department of Justice. Days later, the separation was made formal when the budget chairman moved oversight of the Department of Justice to a different subcommittee. The immediate conflict appears to have been resolved.
Mia Bonta maintains that her position had been cleared by Assembly ethics officials and that she recused herself to support transparency and stop distractions.
“I definitely note that it’s a thing that needs to be navigated carefully,” she said.
Still, a larger question lingers: Where should public officials who are family members draw the line between their shared interests and their separate responsibilities?
In addition to the many family members who serve together in the Legislature, several state lawmakers have had spouses who work on policy issues that come before the Legislature or serve in local governments that receive state funding.
“I don’t see those situations different from this particular situation,” Mia Bonta said.
The Bontas call themselves partners in life and partners in service. They’ve shared a passion for social justice since they got together as freshmen at Yale. And they’ve used their respective offices to advance some of the same causes.
Last year, Assemblymember Bonta wrote a bill to create an office in the Department of Justice to research policies to curb gun violence. A few months after it stalled in the Legislature, she joined her husband as he announced his department would form the office anyway, but that didn’t spark controversy.
But before Mia Bonta was elected to the Assembly, there was a financial transaction involving the couple that several experts said was legal but unethical. As an Assembly member, Rob Bonta created a nonprofit foundation and solicited donations to it from companies that lobbied the Legislature. He then used the foundation’s money to make a payment to the nonprofit organization that employed his wife.
(He described the $25,000 as a loan in 2020, though tax returns at the time didn’t reflect that.)
It wasn’t the first time Rob Bonta had directed money to Mia Bonta’s employer.
Over several years he donated money from his campaign funds to organizations where she worked, obtaining letters saying the groups would not use the funds for her salary because state law prohibits politicians from using campaign funds for personal benefit. He also asked interest groups to donate to nonprofits where she was employed.
“We’re working on areas of shared passion,” he told me at the time.
After a news story was published about the matter, Rob Bonta stepped down from the board of his foundation and it established new rules prohibiting both members of the couple from making spending decisions and banning donations to organizations that employ either one of them.
And California’s political watchdog agency approved a new rule requiring officials to report their ties to an organization when they ask donors to give money to a group that employs, or is controlled by, the official, their staff or their family members.
“These are relationships with a potential for influence or self-dealing that the public would want to have disclosed,” says a staff report to the commission.
Officials should not direct money to organizations that employ their family members because of the potential for their personal benefit, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
In other cases, she said, defining where to draw the line is not always obvious.
“Whenever it comes to these potential conflict-of-interest cases or ethical issues, we’re all just worried that somebody in public office is making decisions to benefit their spouse or their kid or their friend, but not the rest of us,” she said. “At the very basic level, that’s the concern.”