Capitol Alert

California’s insurance chief took money from this businessman. Why the donation raises questions

California senator argues for single-payer health care in California

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, urges passage of SB 582, a measure aimed at establishing a new universal health care system in California.
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Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, urges passage of SB 582, a measure aimed at establishing a new universal health care system in California.

State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara accepted a $10,000 donation to his inaugural committee from a Laguna Beach businessman whose company was investigated and fined over multiple workplace injuries and a death, state records show.

The money was reported as a donation from a restaurant known as Oak Laguna Beach. Owner John Porrello said he gave the money on Jan. 4 this year after meeting Lara at a fundraiser because he was grateful for a resolution Lara carried as a California senator in 2017 honoring the Cambodian Genocide.

“My family will never forget what his resolution did,” said Porrello, whose wife is Cambodian, in a telephone interview. “It was an emotional donation, not a political donation. I don’t know anything about senators or commissioners, but I do know about my family.”

But Porrello is also the CEO of a company called PriorityWorkforce, a job outsourcing agency that’s been fined multiple times for having employees injured or, in one instance, killed on the job.

The donation once again raises questions about fundraising by Lara, who has faced questions about contributions made to his campaign account in recent months.

Despite a campaign pledge not to take money from the insurance industry, he took $54,000 in April from a group of industry executives and their wives. The donors were found by the San Diego Union-Tribune to have notable ties to Applied Underwriters, a workers’ compensation agency with cases before the department. Lara has since returned the money.

Department spokesman Byron Tucker said the agency could not comment on any potential investigations or complaints involving Porrello, but said Lara knew him “as only a restaurant owner.”

“He knew nothing about his other business entities or the history,” Tucker said.

Porrello’s business has been fined by other state departments in multiple instances involving employee safety.

After a worker was struck by a forklift and died in November 2016, Geneva Staffing, operating as PriorityWorkforce, was fined $45,750, according to ongoing case documents from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Tustin-based company was also fined $29,250 in April 2019 for failing to properly train a worker who had two fingers amputated after his hand was caught in a dough-rolling machine, a Department of Industrial Relations press statement announcing the citations show.

Another near $30,000 in issued fines came from three 2014 injury-related citations, including a second finger amputation, according to OSHA records.

Porrello acknowledged the fines, but said his company had no pending or closed matters before Lara’s agency.

“Zero, zero and more zero,” Porrello said.

“We are a staffing company and sometimes there were accidents and people point fingers,” Porrello explained. “But they have nothing to do with political or commissioner stuff.”

Porrello, who records show is a registered Republican, added that the Democratic commissioner’s position as the state’s first openly gay statewide official also inspired the gift.

“Oak is in a very LGBT community,” Porrello explained. “It’s good to see that he’s in an alternative lifestyle as well.”

Despite Porrello’s account, a Public Records Act request filed by The Sacramento Bee confirmed later that the department has “records of complaints or investigations that reference or relate to” Porrello and PriorityWorkforce.

The department said the records are confidential, citing provisions of state law governing investigations and allegations of insurance fraud. It did not indicate whether Porrello or his company have been accused of wrongdoing. Porrello did not return follow-up calls for comment.

As commissioner, Lara enforces a lengthy list of consumer protection regulations, “including overseeing insurer solvency, licensing agents and brokers, conducting market conduct reviews, resolving consumer complaints, and investigating and prosecuting insurance fraud.”

He also oversees workers’ compensation laws.

California politicians can solicit charitable donations through a process known as “behesting.” Records show Lara solicited a number of behested donations totaling $75,000 in late December 2018 and early January for his inauguration.

During the Jan. 7 ceremony in Sacramento, he promised to work with wildfire and climate change disaster victims, and said he would promote innovation and technology and defend Californians against insurance scams.