News reports in the late 1990s were full of stories about late-year conferences state legislators attended each year at an expensive resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui – meetings staged by the state prison guards union.
The meetings, with some “sessions” apparently held in the surf, drew fire from editorialists and were part of the climate of seeming corruption that eventually produced the recall election of 2003 as a backlash.
One year, 42 lawmakers attended, most saying they were paying their expenses out of campaign funds, some of which had been contributed by the prison guards. The next year, three of the four top legislative leaders attended, with two saying they’d gone only to “hear what these people have to say.”
Public disgust led to an end of these sessions after the 1999 version.
But a similar meeting conducted late this spring with primary election campaigns in full swing now raises the suspicion that legislators still don’t understand the concept of conflict of interest.
Let’s spell it out for them here: if you take money from a corporation, individual or organization and then vote for something that would put far more money into the contributor’s pocket, that’s at least the appearance of a conflict. Generally, it’s impossible to prove when a vote has been flat-out bought. But it can be very easy to see public policy following campaign contributions.
If you are the insurance commissioner, for instance, you had better not take money from insurance companies or their agents and then give them large rate increases. If you are the governor, it may not be wise to take money from car dealers and then soften or suspend state lemon laws. Similarly, it’s not cool to take a sizeable donation from a software company and then hand it a no-bid contract to service state computers.
California has seen all these things in the last few years. Ousted Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush followed the precise agenda of the companies that funded his campaigns. Car dealers are among the biggest contributors to current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has softened lemon laws and other consumer protections. He or his appointees have done the same kinds of things for telephone and natural gas companies on his big-buck donor list. Ex-Gov. Gray Davis often seemed to do the bidding of labor unions and companies that funded him.
Now comes Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of East Los Angeles, carrying a bill that would radically change the rules of cable television to benefit AT&T and other big phone companies. Rather than compel cable providers to seek franchises from cities and counties and work out contracts with them, Nunez would give AT&T, Verizon and other phone giants the right to sell video along with their current telephone and Internet offerings.
It may be that this change would save consumers $1 billion or more, as a UC Berkeley study paid for by AT&T concluded. (A separate report on drug trials last year found that studies paid for by pharmaceutical companies were five times more likely to produce favorable results for the drug than trials paid for by others. Could the same bought-conclusions phenomenon have been at work in the Berkeley cable TV study?)
Whether the study is accurate or not, Nunez provided cynics with plenty of ammunition during the primary season when he allowed AT&T to honor him at a Pebble Beach fundraiser for the state Democratic Party. The event reportedly raised several million dollars for the party, which can use it to back candidates whose own fundraising is severely limited by 2000’s Proposition 34.
Dozens of corporations, unions and casino Indian tribes also forked over to hobnob with the speaker and other lawmakers at the Speaker’s Cup gathering.
Nunez, of course, insisted that he would have sponsored the cable bill, which figures to benefit AT&T more than any other company, even if it had not sponsored the Monterey County event.
As with the contributions to Quackenbush, Schwarzenegger and Davis, no one can prove a direct quid pro quo arrangement between Nunez and AT&T. But the appearance is certainly there.
The fact this raises eyebrows at all shows that a lot has changed over the last 40 years. “Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” is the aphorism for which that era’s Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh is best remembered. But Unruh also liked to say, “If you can’t eat their [donors’] food, drink their booze, [see] their women and still vote against them the next day, you don’t belong here.”
Maybe politicians then were strong enough to live up to that dictum. But few would trust today’s versions so far. That’s why it’s imperative they at last begin to understand what makes something a conflict of interest and how it creates the perception of corruption. The longer they don’t, the more distrust they breed for all levels of government.