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Sacramento Bee
Mar 17, 2004

by Dan Walters

Cases against California lawmakers fail to get equal attention

When allegations surfaced in the late 1990s that Chuck Quackenbush, the state insurance commissioner, had intermingled official business with political image-building, the Legislature launched an exhaustive investigation that drove Quackenbush from office.

Quackenbush had allowed insurance companies accused of mishandling claims from the 1994 Northridge earthquake to donate, in lieu of fines, millions of dollars to private foundations that, in turn, made contributions to various groups and thus raised Quackenbush's political profile.

Quackenbush was a Republican, so investigating his conduct was an easy call for the Legislature's dominant Democrats. Republican legislators participated fully, however, on the promise that allegations against Democrats also would be pursued.

A couple of years later, the promise was given an acid test: the Gray Davis administration's handling of a $100 million state software contract. Close Davis aides pushed the contract with Oracle Corp. through the bureaucracy with lightning speed, even though career state managers were questioning its utility and cost. And Oracle's lobbyist delivered a $25,000 campaign check for Davis' re-election campaign as the contract was being finalized.

Democratic legislative leaders were reluctant to investigate the Oracle affair as aggressively as they had the Quackenbush case. One Democratic legislator, Dean Florez, pushed hard for a probe, but the speaker of the Assembly, Herb Wesson, was clearly hostile. He appointed two Democrats to the investigating committee, Rebecca Cohn and Fred Keeley, who acted as virtual defense attorneys.

Keeley, who had been one of Quackenbush's chief accusers, was at the time under consideration for a high administration position. At one point Florez chastised Cohn for divulging confidential investigative papers to non-committee members, calling it "a serious breach of protocol." Wesson later bounced Florez out of the audit committee chairmanship and replaced him with Cohn.

Several administration officials lost their jobs as the Oracle scandal unfolded, and one former adviser to Davis was charged with altering documents before giving them to investigators. But Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer said he found no hard evidence of wrongdoing by others.

The selective attitude about delving into allegations of misconduct is being demonstrated anew in two other cases.

The Assembly's leadership, which aggressively pursued charges of sexual harassment against Republican lawmakers in the past, is dragging its feet on allegations against Assemblywoman Cohn by former aides who say she often talked about her provocative attire and her sex life and asked them to handle her undergarments while posing for a photographer. Cohn refuses to comment about the case, but what if a male Republican lawmaker were to be accused by his staffers of doing that?

The Senate Rules Committee, meanwhile, has rejected a consumer group's complaint about Sen. Don Perata. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Perata had received about $100,000 in "consulting fees" from a firm owned by an old friend after the firm received a contract from a political action group that had, in turn, gotten a $75,000 contribution from Mercury General Corp. What made the transactions questionable was that Perata had carried Mercury-sponsored legislation dealing with insurance discounts and the senator had not fully reported the payments on his economic interest statements.

Perata has denied any quid pro quo aspect and there may be a political angle. The consumer group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is closely aligned with attorneys who specialize in personal injury cases, and who would prefer that someone other than Perata - someone friendlier to trial attorneys than insurance companies - become president pro tem of the Senate.

Those possible motives notwithstanding, the Perata case bears a striking resemblance to past instances of questionable payments to him, as well as the Quackenbush case. If the former insurance commissioner's acts merited a full-bore legislative investigation, it's difficult to understand how Perata should escape critical scrutiny - unless there is a double standard.

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