CA Dem Gubernatorial Candidate Allegedly Paid Spouse's Company for Austria Trip With Campaign Funds

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

A California lawmaker seeks to become the state’s first LGBTQ governor, hoping to succeed current Gov. Gavin Newsom. However, she may have already hit a roadblock after facing scrutiny over her use of campaign funds.


Toni Atkins allegedly paid thousands of dollars in campaign funds to her wife’s company, according to a Politico report. The money went toward funding a trip to Vienna, Austria, in 2022.

Toni Atkins, the powerful former legislative leader from San Diego, paid $22,500 to the Global Policy Leadership Academy, where her longtime spouse, Jennifer LeSar, is the firm’s chief executive officer and its sole shareholder, disclosures reviewed by POLITICO show. Atkins described the money as going toward a trip to Vienna, Austria, in 2022.

California law bars officeholders from using campaign funds for personal reasons such as giving to a spouse or domestic partner, experts said. The Global Policy Leadership Academy is part of a portfolio of affordable housing and economic development companies owned by LeSar.

Ann Ravel, former chair for both the Federal Election Commission and California’s Fair Political Practices Commission — the campaign finance watchdog agencies in Washington and Sacramento — told POLITICO the amount of money Atkins sent to the Global Policy Leadership Academy, a for-profit company, is not legal.

Any money given from campaign funds must be reasonably — and directly — related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose, she said. “This is not the case with the Global Policy Leadership Academy,” Ravel said after reviewing Atkins’ payment.


Atkins’ campaign pushed back against the suggestion that the money was illegally spent. In a statement to Politico, campaign spokesperson Evan Westrup explained that the seminar was aimed at helping leaders craft solutions for housing and homelessness, which is a serious issue in the Golden State. He said, “There was no net financial benefit from the seminar to GPLA or the senator’s spouse.”

Westrup insisted that the funds were used to cover seminar expenses.

“The fact that you’re citing information disclosed in public documents about the senator’s participation in this particular seminar reflects her longstanding and continued commitment not only to transparency, but also to making housing more affordable for Californians,” he argued.

Indeed, the report notes that the funds were highlighted in Atkins’ disclosure forms.

Atkins announced in January that she was running to succeed Newsom as governor in 2026.

Atkins, a democrat, walked onto the stage at the San Diego Air & Space Museum to McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" and a crowd chanting "Toni." She announced her run, and her intent to continue her focus on affordable housing and healthcare.

"It's time for California to finally elect a woman governor," Atkins said. "As the most qualified candidate running for governor, who also happens to be a woman, I agree."

Atkins, who made history as the first woman and first openly gay person to lead California's upper legislative chamber, was termed out of her Senate seat and announced in August she would not be seeking re-election.


In September, she issued a statement addressing California’s homelessness crisis. “This year another challenging one—between the homelessness crisis, a tough budget forecast, and destructive storms driven by a warming climate, we had our work cut out for us. Despite these difficulties, my Democratic Senate colleagues and I continued to protect the progress we have made as a state by championing new approaches to our mental health, homelessness, infrastructure, climate, and housing challenges,” she said.


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