With two state senators facing criminal charges, another convicted, and a Public Utilities Commission president outed for secret, possibly illegal, dealings with PG&E, this has been a banner year for political corruption in California. Unfortunately, the re-election of Gov. Jerry Brown seems to hold little promise for improvement.
Brown began his political career in the 1970s as a radical governor who would take down political corruption and outsized donations from lobbyists. The Brown we see today courts millions in campaign contributions from big corporations and looks the other way when a key government official is caught red-handed trying to protect the company he is supposed to be investigating.
In the case of disgraced PUC President Michael Peevey, Brown has not demanded Peevey immediately resign from office, despite the recent unearthing of his blatantly improper and unethical intervention on behalf of PG&E. The PUC is supposed to hold PG&E accountable and protect the public in the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. What we find instead are backroom deals, bribery, questionable rate hikes, and hand-picking judges who will be favorable to PG&E and the utility industry Peevey comes from.
During Brown’s last four years, political corruption has not only been at an all-time high, but indicted public officials have met with little in the way of punishment, or even admonishment.
When State Sens. Ron Calderon, Rod Wright and Leland Yee were indicted on charges ranging from weapons trafficking to accepting bribes to good ol’ fashioned election fraud, all three were allowed to go on paid leave. Calderon and Yee are still on paid suspension. Wright resigned only after his conviction was upheld, and due to jail overcrowding only served 70 minutes of a 90-day sentence, which was already a paltry portion of the punishment legally fitting his crimes.
Brown’s governance has failed to set a standard condemning influence peddling in Sacramento.
The changes in Brown’s campaign fundraising over the years are a signpost of the kind of leader he has become. Unlike his first gubernatorial campaign in 1974, during which he attempted to ban direct contributions from lobbyists, or his campaign for president in 1992, when he wanted candidates to cap donations at $100, Brown’s most recent campaigns have been marked by raising some of the largest sums in the country. The $25 million in the 2014 race came overwhelmingly from big corporations, labor unions, oil companies and wealthy individuals known for lobbying state government.
The means by which Brown secures such hefty contributions came under suspicion in January, when he asked the California Supreme Court to reverse lower court rulings blocking high-speed rail. Brown filed the appeal just three days after Tutor Perini Corp. – the contractor that won a $1 billion contract for the project despite having the lowest technical rating of those bidding – donated the maximum $27,200 it could to Brown’s campaign.
Is it any surprise that in September Brown vetoed an ethics bill (Senate Bill 1443) that would have required more campaign finance disclosure and reduced the value of gifts lobbyists can give state officials?
There has been much talk about how Brown will cement his legacy before term limits finally end his gubernatorial reign. We need our governor to return to the anti-corruption, anti-big money ethos of an earlier Jerry Brown, the one who in 1992 bemoaned the “unholy alliance of private greed and corrupt politics,” led by “a confederacy of corruption, careerism, and campaign consulting.”
Without that, water tunnels, high speed rail, debt reduction, rainy day fund or no, Brown’s legacy will be one of continued political corruption and corporate favoritism.
Harry Snyder is a consumer advocate and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health.