Six television cameras were trained on Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez as he addressed the press Monday in a Capitol meeting room.
It was the Assembly’s first day back to work after summer recess, and while the Democratic leader answered questions about bills his house will vote on in coming weeks, his communications chief Steven Maviglio stood in the corner, away from the cameras. He scribbled notes, snapped pictures with his smartphone and promoted his boss on social media.
Maviglio is on a short-term contract as a media consultant to the Assembly speaker that ends when the legislative session concludes next month. The Legislature is paying him $9,500 a month to perform the part-time job.
Through his Forza Communications firm, Maviglio also works for private-sector clients. Some are advocacy groups who have paid him to promote their bills moving through the Legislature – including measures the speaker addressed at Monday’s press conference.
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It’s an unusual arrangement, even in a Capitol that thrives on close relationships between elected officials and the interest groups they govern.
“It seems like he’s serving two masters,” said Jessica Levinson, an expert in political ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“He may be doing a great job serving both of them, and he may not be doing anything improper. But at the very least it feels uncomfortable and improper because he is serving a legislator and serving clients who seek to influence that legislator.”
Maviglio, who managed Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s campaigns and has held high-profile positions with two former Assembly speakers and Gov. Gray Davis, represents the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association, which are pushing a bill to raise taxes on cigarettes. Until recently, another client paid him to promote a package of bills that would allow certain health care professionals to expand the services they can provide.
He also represents labor unions and energy companies that routinely have business before the California Legislature.
Maviglio, 54, said his job with the speaker is to communicate what happens inside the Capitol – not shape it.
“I’m not in product development. I’m in sales and marketing,” he said. “The decisions are made and I communicate them to you guys. I don’t participate in the decisions.”
Political consultants routinely have clients that include elected officials and private interests.
Jason Kinney, for example, is a communications consultant to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. As a partner in the California Strategies public affairs firm, he also represents many clients that have a stake in state legislation. Among them: the National Football League, a Las Vegas casino company and a professional association that lobbies on behalf of California doctors.
A key difference, however, is that Kinney is paid by the California Democratic Party to consult with Steinberg and Senate Democrats on political campaigns. Maviglio is paid by taxpayers to represent Pérez on legislative matters.
Maviglio argues that his work is similar to legislative staff members who take outside work on political campaigns – a common practice. Campaign work can involve cozy relationships with the same interest groups that lobby staff in their government roles, he said.
Some Assembly staff members hold outside jobs at pet stores or doing graphic design, said Jon Waldie, chief administrator for the lower house. He could not think of anyone other than Maviglio who simultaneously works for groups that lobby legislation.
“Steve is the one with the integrity who came forward and said, ‘These are some of the people I work with. Is this going to be a problem?’ ” Waldie said.
It’s not a problem, Waldie said the Legislature’s lawyers told him, as long as Maviglio reports his other sources of income and is not in a position to influence policy decisions.
Still, as Maviglio tended to Pérez’s news conference inside the Capitol this week, he got firsthand updates from a powerful legislator on bills his private-sector clients are lobbying.
Pérez didn’t seem swayed by his spokesman’s clients.
“I don’t see the votes for it,” Pérez said about the cigarette tax bill, which is currently stalled in the Senate.
Maviglio has written favorably about the bill on his blog, the California Majority Report, and recently pitched reporters to cover a renewed push for the legislation.
On the bills that would expand the medical services nurse practitioners, optometrists and pharmacists can offer, Pérez said he wanted his caucus to “evaluate them on a case by case basis, on the merits.”
This spring, Maviglio was being paid by a coalition of those health care providers who are pushing the bills to allow them to perform a wider variety of services. He coordinated a news conference to promote the bills at a Sacramento health clinic and crafted a social media campaign arguing that the legislation will help more people get health care.
To avoid any potential conflicts with his job for the speaker, Maviglio said he stopped taking money from the groups once the bills got out of the Senate at the end of May, and referred the business to other political consultants in town.
Pérez dismissed concern about Maviglio’s association with the bills’ advocates.
“He’s my spokesman, which means he says on my behalf what I ask him to say on my behalf. It doesn’t work the other way around,” Pérez said.
“Even if I try to get a substantive opinion from him, he’s the first one to say, ‘You’re talking policy, that’s not my area.’ So we completely disregard what other opinions he may have.”
The next day, an Assembly committee voted on two of the medical scope-of-practice bills, passing the pharmacists’ bill and holding the nurse practitioners’ bill.
Maviglio emphasized the difference between lobbying and communications, arguing that he’s not directly pushing lawmakers for a vote on his clients’ issues.
“Because Steve Maviglio has his name on a press release is not going to convince, I don’t think, anybody to do anything,” he said.
“People want me to influence reporters and try to get stories placed. It has nothing to do with the speaker.”
Even with the distinction between lobbying and communications, Levinson said, working for the Assembly leader likely helps Maviglio solicit business from interest groups.
“As a private sector client, it makes all the sense in the world to hire someone who has the ear of a powerful legislator,” she said.
Kimberly Amazeen, a vice president of the American Lung Association, said the group hired Maviglio because he is “the right guy for right now.”
“His relationship with the speaker had nothing to do with us hiring him for strategic communications. We have hired lobbyists, we’re not asking him to lobby for us. We’re asking him to do what he does best, which is strategic communications.”
Maviglio’s dual roles working for the speaker and the interest groups blurs the line between public service and private industry, said Phillip Ung, an advocate with California Common Cause, a group that promotes government transparency.
“I would like to see an all-out ban on this type of overlapping,” Ung said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.”
The longtime political consultant draws income from both the public and private sectors.
HIS TWO ROLES:
• Media consultant to Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez. The state Legislature pays him $9,500 a month for his efforts.
• “Head honcho” of Forza Communications, a firm that represents private-sector clients including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association.
PREVIOUS POSITIONS INCLUDE: Campaign manager for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson; deputy chief of staff for former Assembly speakers Fabian Nuñez and Karen Bass; press secretary for Gov. Gray Davis.
Sources: Bee reporting, forzacommunications.com
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.