Big oil lob­by­ists at­tempt slick ma­neu­vers

In­dus­try hires for­mer law­mak­ers fa­mil­iar with the Leg­is­la­ture to kill bills and in­flu­ence pol­icy

The Mercury News - - Local News - By San­dra Gon­za­les sgon­za­les@ba­yare­anews­

In­side the Cal­i­for­nia As­sem­bly cham­ber on the night of June 1, the pre­sid­ing of­fi­cer urged law­mak­ers to rec­og­nize for­mer mem­bers in their midst, “the hon­or­able Henry Perea and Felipe Fuentes.” In a fa­mil­iar Capi­tol ritual, the for­mer as­sem­bly­men waved from the bal­cony as ap­plause rang out from their one-time col­leagues.

But the two weren’t just re­tired law­mak­ers — they were now lob­by­ists be­ing paid by oil com­pa­nies to kill a bill that would soon meet its fate on the As­sem­bly floor be­low.

That bill, by Demo­cratic Assem­bly­woman Cristina Gar­cia, aimed to force the in­dus­try to re­duce air pol­lu­tion that comes from their plants. Gar­cia knew the lob­by­ists in the bal­cony were pals with many of her As­sem­bly col­leagues, she knew oil and other in­dus­tries were work­ing hard to de­feat her, and she knew her bill was in dan­ger.

A mil­lion peo­ple in her in­dus­trial Los An­ge­les neigh­bor­hood “have been treated like a waste­land,” Gar­cia said in frus­tra­tion, wip­ing tears from her eyes. Then she cast a glance to­ward the bal­cony. “Clean air is a big deal for a lot of Cal­i­for­ni­ans,” she said. “You have a choice: Do we all mat­ter?”

Her bill fell six votes short, as mod­er­ate Democrats joined Repub­li­cans to quash it. The mo-

“The in­dus­try showed in­cred­i­ble smarts by go­ing out and hir­ing th­ese peo­ple. Na­tion­ally, the oil in­dus­try is very Re­pub­li­can.” — David Townsend, a Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant

ment marked a win for oil — and re­volv­ing-door pol­i­tics.

To­day Gar­cia cites the lob­by­ists’ spe­cial re­la­tion­ships with cur­rent leg­is­la­tors as among the fac­tors to blame for her bill’s demise. “When you have a for­mer mem­ber on the floor at the same time they are work­ing for or against the bill,” she said, “you open the op­por­tu­nity to have ac­cess in a way lob­by­ists nor­mally would not have.”

Sacra­mento is full of termed-out or re­tired law­mak­ers who make sec­ond ca­reers as lob­by­ists, strolling through a “re­volv­ing door” between govern­ment and the pri­vate sec­tor. Cur­rent law pro­hibits ex-leg­is­la­tors from di­rectly lob­by­ing their for­mer col­leagues for one year af­ter they leave the Leg­is­la­ture, and a mea­sure on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would slightly strengthen that by bar­ring leg­is­la­tors who quit midterm from lob­by­ing dur­ing the re­main­der of that two-year-ses­sion, plus an­other year.

Still, the oil in­dus­try’s strat­egy this year was strik­ing. Af­ter fail­ing last year to pre­vent a new law re­quir­ing mas­sive cuts to green­house gas emis­sions, oil came back this year lob­by­ing hard. Now Democrats held a su­per­ma­jor­ity in the Leg­is­la­ture but were di­vided over how to re­design the state’s land­mark ca­pand-trade pro­gram, which forces busi­nesses to re­duce emis­sions or pay for per­mits to pol­lute.

The oil in­dus­try’s goal: to shape the next phase of cap and trade through 2030. And it had hired four for­mer law­mak­ers — all Democrats — to ad­vo­cate on its be­half.

Each hailed from pre­dom­i­nantly work­ing class, Latino dis­tricts and joined an in­flu­en­tial “mod squad” of mod­er­ates dur­ing their leg­isla­tive tenures, which cov­ered var­i­ous pe­ri­ods between 2002 and 2015. Two are from Kern County, the big­gest oil pro­ducer in Cal­i­for­nia. And three quit their elec­tive of­fice mid-term to work for in­dus­try.

All four de­clined in­ter­views for this ar­ti­cle, as did their em­ploy­ers. Three were reg­is­tered lob­by­ists dur­ing the peak of cap and trade ne­go­ti­a­tions this year:

Henry Perea, the son of a Fresno city coun­cil­man and grand­son of Mex­i­can im­mi­grants, made his mark in the As­sem­bly as the for­mer leader of its mod cau­cus be­fore quit­ting midterm, ini­tially to work for a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal trade as­so­ci­a­tion. Now he lob­bies for the Western States Pe­tro­leum As­so­ci­a­tion.

Felipe Fuentes, raised in the San Fer­nando Val­ley, worked as a leg­is­la­tor to se­cure tax cred­its to keep film­mak­ers in the state, then was named to the Los An­ge­les Times 2016 “naughty” list for bail­ing on his LA city coun­cil seat to be­come a lob­by­ist. His firm’s clients in­clude an oil pro­duc­tion com­pany.

Michael Ru­bio, who worked his way up in Kern County pol­i­tics, abruptly quit the state Sen­ate in 2013 to work for Chevron, say­ing he wanted to spend more time with his fam­ily.

A fourth is not a reg­is­tered lob­by­ist, but man­ages govern­ment af­fairs for a re­fin­ery com­pany:

Ni­cole Parra, whose fa­ther was a Kern County Su­per­vi­sor, won elec­tion to the As­sem­bly at age 32 and also be­came a mod cau­cus leader, known for some­times en­dors­ing Repub­li­cans.

“The in­dus­try showed in­cred­i­ble smarts by go­ing out and hir­ing th­ese peo­ple. Na­tion­ally, the oil in­dus­try is very Re­pub­li­can,” said David Townsend, a Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant who knows all four through his work run­ning a fundrais­ing com­mit­tee that helps elect busi­ness­friendly Democrats.

“Their knowl­edge base is enor­mous. Their re­la­tion­ships are broad-based and deep. If I were in trou­ble, they are some of the ones I’d hire,” Townsend said.

Oil com­pa­nies have a long his­tory of fight­ing against the ag­gres­sive cli­mate poli­cies backed by many Cal­i­for­nia Democrats. This year, though, in­stead of fight­ing against cap and trade, oil teamed with other busi­ness in­ter­ests to lobby to make cap and trade more in­dus­tryfriendly. In the fi­nal deal that law­mak­ers ap­proved on a bi­par­ti­san vote in July, oil won a new law for­bid­ding lo­cal air qual­ity dis­tricts from en­act­ing emis­sions re­stric­tions tighter than the state’s — as well as a po­ten­tial perk worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. Lead­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal groups sup­ported the bill to ex­tend cap and trade for an­other decade, but other en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists wound up op­pos­ing it for be­ing too easy on pol­luters.

“This easy cross­ing from leg­is­la­tor to ad­vo­cate for the in­dus­try has hap­pened be­fore, but it seems to have been hap­pen­ing re­cently in greater bulk. So that, to me, is kind of dis­tress­ing,” said Kathryn Phillips, a lob­by­ist for the Sierra Club, which op­posed the cap-and-trade plan.

“Th­ese are peo­ple who have been friends with the peo­ple they are go­ing to lobby.”

Many as­pects of those re­la­tion­ships play out in ways the pub­lic never sees — through text mes­sages, phone calls or at pri­vate get-to­geth­ers. Weeks be­fore law­mak­ers voted on the fi­nal cap-and-trade bills, Sen­ate leader Kevin de León dined with Perea and Ru­bio at an in­ti­mate Sacra­mento res­tau­rant known for $44 steaks.

De León, a Los An­ge­les Demo­crat who has car­ried many clean en­ergy bills, said for­mer law­mak­ers didn’t get any spe­cial treat­ment from him.

“I sit down with ev­ery­body across the spec­trum. That’s my job as the leader of the Sen­ate,” he said. “I have to sit down with all per­spec­tives, whether it’s oil, whether it’s clean en­ergy, whether it is la­bor unions, whether it’s busi­nesses.”

Af­ter Perea be­came a lob­by­ist, he met with As­sem­bly Speaker An­thony Ren­don to talk about cap and trade, and held ad­di­tional meet­ings with the speaker’s staff, Ren­don ac­knowl­eged. But the speaker re­jected the idea that for­mer law­mak­ers were es­pe­cially in­flu­en­tial in ne­go­ti­at­ing the next phase of Cal­i­for­nia’s land­mark cli­mate pol­icy.

“On an is­sue like cap and trade, where mem­bers ar­rive with a cer­tain set of val­ues and with in­for­ma­tion al­ready, I am in­clined to think that this is less im­pact­ful,” Ren­don said.

On the other hand, for­mer law­mak­ers — es­pe­cially those who served most re­cently — can bring unique in­sider know-how to any lob­by­ing ef­fort. They un­der­stand cau­cus dy­nam­ics, know how to tai­lor per­sua­sive mes­sages to par­tic­u­lar leg­is­la­tors, and en­joy un­usual ac­cess to pub­lic of­fi­cials.

Signs of that were on dis­play through­out the year in the bustling Capi­tol. In April, Parra par­tic­i­pated in a lunchtime dis­cus­sion with leg­isla­tive staffers about pro­fes­sional ad­vance­ment for women of color, joined by a leg­is­la­tor, a law­maker’s chief of staff and an aide to the gover­nor who works on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. And in Septem­ber, as law­mak­ers be­gan a long night vot­ing on dozens of bills, Perea strolled down a Capi­tol hall­way packed with lob­by­ists and slipped into the back door of the As­sem­bly cham­ber — right past a sign la­bel­ing the room re­stricted to “mem­bers and staff only.”

Well-con­nected en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates also roam the halls. Last year, for ex­am­ple, the As­sem­bly hon­ored for­mer leg­is­la­tor Chris­tine Ke­hoe, a San Diego Demo­crat who now runs a group that works to ex­pand use of elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

Fre­quently when politi­cians leave of­fice, they take a job de­vel­op­ing a lob­by­ing strat­egy — but not di­rectly lob­by­ing. Ru­bio did that when he quit the Leg­is­la­ture in 2013 to work for Chevron, as did Perea when he re­signed in 2015 to work for a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal trade as­so­ci­a­tion. But as the cap-and-trade ne­go­ti­a­tions heated up this year, both of­fi­cially reg­is­tered as lob­by­ists — a sign

“This easy cross­ing from leg­is­la­tor to ad­vo­cate for the in­dus­try has hap­pened be­fore, but it seems to have been hap­pen­ing re­cently in greater bulk. So that, to me, is kind of dis­tress­ing.” — Kathryn Phillips, a lob­by­ist for the Sierra Club

that they an­tic­i­pated hav­ing a lot more di­rect con­tact with law­mak­ers. Perea left the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal group to join the Western States Pe­tro­leum As­so­ci­a­tion as a reg­is­tered lob­by­ist in May. The next month, Ru­bio reg­is­tered as a lob­by­ist for Chevron. In Septem­ber, he filed pa­per­work with the Sec­re­tary of State end­ing his regis­tra­tion as a lob­by­ist. (Both men scored spots this year on a pop­u­lar list of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial play­ers around the Capi­tol.)

Fuentes was elected to the Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil af­ter he was termed out of the As­sem­bly in 2012. He quit the City Coun­cil last year to be­come a lob­by­ist with a firm called the Apex Group, whose many clients in­clude Aera En­ergy — a firm that drills for oil in the San Joaquin Val­ley.

Parra, af­ter be­ing out of elected of­fice for eight years, was hired by Te­soro (now An­deavor) in Novem­ber as a man­ager of state govern­ment af­fairs.

No one has com­plained to Cal­i­for­nia’s po­lit­i­cal watch­dog that the for­mer law­mak­ers broke any ethics rules in their ad­vo­cacy work this year. The assem­bly­man car­ry­ing the bill to lengthen the time law­mak­ers are banned from lob­by­ing said it’s not in­spired by any of the Leg­is­la­ture’s re­cent de­par­tures.

Still, even if le­gal, the idea that per­sonal re­la­tion­ships may in­flu­ence statewide pol­icy can be dis­con­cert­ing, said Jes­sica Levinson, a pro­fes­sor at Loy­ola Law School and pres­i­dent of the Los An­ge­les Ethics Com­mis­sion.

“If we think about what we’re wor­ried about when it comes to any lob­by­ist, it’s the idea that our law­mak­ers are mak­ing de­ci­sions based on what hired guns are ask­ing them to do as op­posed to what’s good pub­lic pol­icy,” Levinson said.

“Lob­by­ists have an out­sized in­flu­ence on law­mak­ers, and that is ex­po­nen­tially in­creased when that lob­by­ist is a for­mer law­maker.”

This an abridged ver­sion of the full story, which is avail­able at CAL­mat­ters. org — a non­profit, non­par­ti­san me­dia ven­ture ex­plain­ing Cal­i­for­nia poli­cies and pol­i­tics.

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