By Tom Elias
Few California administrations have been plagued with as much corruption as Gov. Jerry Brown’s current governing cadre, with well-documented, possibly illegal manipulations by several major agencies run by his appointees.
That’s why Brown’s double standards were so plainly exposed the other day when he blasted the lone state agency where Republicans have a significant voice, the tax collecting Board of Equalization. Brown lambasted “inappropriate actions by the board” that render it unable to perform many of its duties.
That board’s elected membership, representing four large districts covering the entire state, is half Republican, half Democratic. Democratic state Controller Betty Yee, elected statewide, holds the decisive vote, but the GOP members – former legislators George Runner of Lancaster and Dianne Harkey of Dana Point – have plenty to say about the board’s operations.
The board is under fire these days after an audit by the Brown-controlled state Department of Finance found members regularly assigned employees to help board members with public events that could promote them in their districts. Even tax auditors were sometimes used at self-serving events for things like crowd control or “parking lot duty.”
Brown came down hard on the board. He suspended its ability to approve new contracts, hires and promotions, giving these functions to another state department. And he sought action from the Legislature to correct other “serious problems.”
That stands in stark contrast to the governor’s mild approach after the highly irregular activities of perhaps the two most powerful state agencies – the Public Utilities and Energy commissions – were exposed while those bodies are controlled by Brown appointees.
For example, he did nothing when the Energy Commission in 2014 awarded of tens of millions of dollars in grants to build hydrogen refueling stations for the new generation of H2-powered cars to a brand new company headed by a onetime academic who only months earlier drew the map for where those stations would go and instructed Energy Commission employees on how to award grants.
Instead of firing the commission chairman who furthered this obvious, cronyist conflict of interest, Brown reappointed him to a new term.
It was much the same at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). When it emerged that the former commission president met secretly with utility executives and privately decided the outcome of multi-billion-dollar cases, Brown complimented that man on “getting things done” and allowed him to serve out his term without criticism.
While media exposed many cases of the PUC favoring the companies it regulates over their customers, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup insists that he acted, when he actually did nothing beyond signing a thus-far insignificant, watered-down package of “reform” bills last fall. These changed almost nothing about the commission’s operation. Brown was mute even when the PUC spent more than $10 million retaining a criminal defense team to help conceal or downplay its alleged illegal actions. He made no move to truncate any of its authority or that of the Energy Commission.
The sums of money involved in questionable actions by these two commissions dwarf anything the Board of Equalization (BoE) spent wrongfully. Irregular-seeming PUC decisions have cost consumers multiple billions of dollars in recent years, while grants seeming to involve several forms of favoritism by the Energy Commission amount to many tens of millions. The most commonly cited alleged misdeed by the BoE cost less than $200,000, paltry by comparison.
One big difference between the BoE and the other agencies here, besides the magnitude of their alleged actions, is that Brown appointed no one on the BoE, but did name every member of the other panels.
It’s not just Brown who favors the Democrat-dominated agencies over the only one with significant GOP membership. When PUC presidents appear before legislative committees, hearings usually become love-fests, no matter how egregious recent PUC decisions have been.
But when legislators hauled BoE members and staffers in for hearings this spring, they wound up proposing changes to reduce the ability of board members to use agency staff for anything but official duties.
The responses of Brown and major lawmakers to all this demonstrate clearly the double-standard operating in California government – appointed Democrats can get away with almost anything so long as they also promote policies favored by party mates who put them in their current, powerful jobs.