By Tom Elias
The well-documented corruption in various wings of California state government shows few signs of abating soon.
Even though Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest questionable appointees to the state’s powerful Public Utilities Commission have been held up, no one has yet been penalized for several fix-is-in decisions there that are costing consumers billions of dollars.
Energy Commission members who handed out many millions of dollars in hydrogen highway grants to cronies with conflicts of interest weren’t punished; they were reappointed.
Nothing happened to University of California President Janet Napolitano and her aides who accumulated a $175 million slush fund while students were assessed about that same amount in tuition increases.
And so on.
Ask any of the three candidates now leading the polls in the run for governor about all this and you get encomiums to Brown and blanket vows to end corruption, but nothing specific and no sign that any of them understands the extent of sleaziness in state agencies.
Said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor who has led the polls since the run to replace Brown began, “I will not be known for being timid about this or anything else. Gov. Brown says reform is overrated; I say it’s underrated.”
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, running second, noted that “As mayor, my very first executive direction was that city commissioners could not raise money for me or for city council members. Historically, it’s been the opposite.
“I believe transparency in government is critical, especially in a time when people don’t trust the government, any government.”
Noting that members of the state PUC cannot be fired during their six-year terms, even by the governor who appointed them, Villaraigosa added that “We should look at the ability of the governor to fire PUC members. I had zero tolerance for corruption on any city commission and that’s how I would be in state government, too.”
And state Treasurer John Chiang, a former state controller best known for withholding pay from state legislators when they were late approving a budget, said, “The governor needs to set the high ground on matters of government integrity. We need to hold people accountable. When I’m governor and we find instances of corruption, people will get due process, but they will be responsible for what they and their agencies do.”
Chiang, however, noted that a mere accusation of corruption doesn’t mean it occurred. He had some recent experience in this area, when the Sacramento Bee in August reported that a panel he chairs called the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee gave credits and funding to affordable housing builders who contributed to his campaign fund. That committee also includes state Controller Betty Yee and the state finance director, appointed by Brown.
“That was untrue and utterly irresponsible (by the Bee),” Chiang declared. “It was sloppy journalism. Every credit approved during my two-and-a-half years on the committee has been based on a mathematical formula, with professional staff scoring this based on amenities and other features (of the planned housing). The three-members followed staff recommendations in every single case. No one deviated from the formula. I’ve worked hard to keep things completely fair.”
But none of these candidates spoke specifically about any of the known cases of corruption in state government, nor did any of them commit to trying to ferret out more.
If they can’t or won’t be specific about making fixes while they’re mere candidates, it’s anyone’s guess how they might behave if and when they take office.
What’s clear is that the current corruption takes many forms, but does not often see state employees directly line their pockets. Yet, there are plenty of revolving-door examples, where regulators later go to work for the companies they’ve helped. There are also instances of cronies influencing state officials, as when former Gov. Gray Davis, a onetime Brown chief of staff, lobbied Brown to grant hydraulic fracking permits to his client, the Occidental Petroleum Corp., and those permits were granted after officials who originally sought to deny them were fired.
So here’s one question each candidate for governor should be asked when debates begin before next June’s primary election: Exactly what will you do to change the climate of corruption that’s persisted for many years under several governors?