Gov. Jerry Brown has company on his trip to China to further his climate change agenda: About 30 California business leaders are along for the ride to support Brown's policies and build their own business deals.
The business delegation is led by the Bay Area Council business advocacy organization and includes executives at transportation and energy companies, public utility leaders, academics, investors and a top executive of the San Francisco International Airport.
Most paid a fee of about $5,500 on top of their travel costs to attend four days of events, including multiple private dinners and receptions with Brown, a clean energy ministerial and meetings with Chinese business and political leaders.
Brown's office declined to provide an estimate on the trip cost's for him and staff members being paid for by a nonprofit group that takes private donations.
"The purpose of this is really to enable California to play a global role on an issue that's of huge global consequence," said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, which helps run California's trade office in China. "The governor showed a lot of appreciation about having fellow Californians take the time to go to China just for a few days."
Brown's five-day trip, which ends Thursday, has generated heightened media and political attention following President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.
Brown has pledged California's support to continue meeting emission reduction goals laid out in the international accord. He signed a new agreement this week with China aimed at boosting green technology.
It's his second trip to China. A 2013 visit was paid for by Bay Area Council delegates.
But this time, a different group of businesses is paying for the visit for Brown and four of his staff members. The nonprofit California State Protocol Foundation collects private donations to fund travel and other expenses for the state's governors, with the goal of eliminating costs to taxpayers.
Donations to the foundation to support Brown's activities must be regularly disclosed. Documents show labor unions, a physicians group and businesses such as Walmart gave between $25,000 and $100,000 to the foundation in 2016 to pay for Brown's travel, meals and other activities.
Oakland developer John Protopappas, a longtime friend of Brown's, serves as the foundation's president. Tom Willis, an attorney for the nonprofit group, said donations were not solicited specifically for the China trip. Donations in 2017 will eventually be disclosed but are not available yet.
Brown spokesman Gareth Lacy said no cost amount for the trip or estimate would be provided until the governor returns from China. Willis, the nonprofits attorney, did not immediately respond to an email request for comment about the trip's cost.
Ethics experts say while there's nothing illegal or wrong with using private funds to pay for the trip or letting business executives tag along it still raises questions about who gets access to the governor.
"Any elected official hears more about the hopes and dreams and concerns of those who can pay to fund trips and spend time with him," said Jessica Levinson, a professor who studies government and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
But, she said, taxpayers may prefer for Brown to cover the costs without their money.
"Jerry Brown's going to go on this trip, and either I'm going to pay for it as a taxpayer or corporate interests are going to pay for it," she said.
While in China, Brown has met with leaders in the Sichuan and Jiangsu provinces and in Beijing, and delivered remarks at various forums. Remarks on the California-China Climate Partnership at Tsinghau University early Thursday mark Brown's final event of the trip.
Executives traveling with the Bay Area Council dined with Brown on Tuesday evening and attended a Wednesday reception with the governor and Beijing Mayor Cai Qi.
Its executives traveled separately from Brown and most will return Friday. The council hosted last year's Clean Energy Ministerial in San Francisco and is developing partnerships in China.
"We think that working with China is a good economic strategy, particularly around clean energy," Wunderman said.
Also traveling alongside Brown are California Energy Commission Chairman Bob Weisenmiller, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols and several members of their staff.
Their travel is paid for by the Energy Foundation, a nonprofit group that awards grants focused on clean energy.
Eric Jaffe, senior manager of strategic communications for the foundation, did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment on the cost to send those California officials to China.