To some, it seems almost as if California has lately become New Jersey West. Incidents of possible corruption and conflict of interest are seemingly exposed at least once a month these days, with almost no consequences for anyone involved.
• Last month, the Los Angeles Times revealed that the president of the state’s stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Alan Trounson, took a job with a private company shortly after the institute gave the firm a $19 million grant. Whether or not that was payback for Trounson, it didn’t look good.
• A month earlier, this column caught the state Energy Commission earmarking more than $28 million in “hydrogen highway” grants for a new company co-founded by a consultant who only months earlier drew the map determining where hydrogen refueling stations will go and then trained commission staff on how to evaluate grants.
No conflict of interest there, the commission insisted. Right.
• More recently, the San Francisco Chronicle uncovered emails in which the chief of staff to Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey advised officials of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on how to fend off lawsuits over the deadly 2010 explosion of a PG&E natural gas pipeline in San Bruno.
Never mind that the fact Peevey is the former president of a large utility by itself should have raised sufficient conflict of interest questions to prevent his getting that job in the first place.
These revelations – probably just the tip of a conflict of interest and corruption iceberg, because each exposure most likely required a tip from an insider – suggest that corruption may be rampant in state government.
The incidents are magnified because they arose while the state Senate steadfastly refuses to expel three members who have been either convicted or indicted for crimes ranging from lying about place of residence to accepting bribes for votes and assisting supposed gun-runners. Instead, all three are under suspension, but with full pay, most likely until their terms end.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown – who could have stopped the Energy Commission grants had he wished, but might not have been able to influence the other recent episodes – took off on a Mexico trade mission accompanied by a full retinue of lobbyists and corporate executives whose contributions for the trip gained them better access than usual to Brown. Nothing is more important to special interest lobbyists and executives than access to power.
Nasty as all this appears, it isn’t very different from what’s gone on before. One of the key causes of the 2003 recall of ex-Gov. Gray Davis was the fact that he at least gave the appearance of trading favors for campaign contributions. The classic example came when an Oracle Corp. representative turned over $25,000 in putative campaign funds to a Davis aide within days of the company getting a $95 million state software contract without competitive bidding.
Of course, the recall and subsequent election of muscleman actor Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t improve matters. He began by promising never to take special interest campaign contributions, but accepted more than $5 million during the recall election alone. He promised to set up a special panel to investigate his own well-documented womanizing, but never did.
He ended his seven years in office by sharply reducing a murder sentence for the son of his buddy Fabian Nunez, the former speaker of the state Assembly, leading to speculation about items for which this might have been payback.
Schwarzenegger also gave special treatment to oil companies that contributed to his campaigns, suddenly began backing liquefied natural gas imports after one of his top political consultants became a lobbyist for the Australian energy firm BHP Billiton and paid three of his top staffers from both his campaign committee and state funds. These items all came within his first two years in office.
There was also the fact that Schwarzenegger’s magazine contract partner, American Media – also publisher of the National Enquirer – paid one of his alleged former mistresses $20,000 for exclusive rights to her story and then deep-sixed it.
None of this stuff has been unique. It’s all the product of California’s very lax conflict of interest laws. Because governors and legislators have shown little interest for decades in tightening them, such corruption is to be expected and will likely continue, whoever may be in power.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at [email protected]