By Jeff McDonald, THE SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
August 11, 2021
Two years after suspending all campaign fundraising amid a political scandal in which he accepted donations from people with business before the agency he oversees, Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara is back collecting money for his 2022 re-election effort.
According to filing disclosures submitted to the California Secretary of State’s office last week, Lara received more than $329,000 in contributions over the first six months of the year.
Lara campaign spokeswoman Robin Swanson said the fundraising drive was reinstated under strict new vetting protocols.
“The commissioner upheld his promise and halted all fundraising efforts for over a year,” she said by email. “He has been entirely focused on getting the job done as insurance commissioner and helping the people of California during the pandemic.”
The donations came from developers, investors, trial lawyers and unions representing firefighters, teachers and electrical workers, among others. They range from small contributions from individuals to multi-thousand-dollar donations from well-funded political action committees.
In the first six months following his 2018 election as state insurance commissioner, Lara collected tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from insurance executives, their spouses and others with business pending before the agency, the Union-Tribune reported.
Lara announced he would return donations in July 2019, hours after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that he had broken his campaign pledge not to accept contributions from the insurance industry.
He said those donations were accepted by mistake and thanked the newspaper for bringing them to his attention. He also pledged to stop serving as his own treasurer and to hire an expert to vet future donors.
Lara is a San Diego State University graduate who served as an assemblyman and state senator from Bell Gardens before he won the top regulator’s job in 2018.
Lara returned more than $83,000 in campaign donations. But the newspaper later reported that the commissioner accepted at least $270,000 in donations from people with ties to insurers.
Department officials also intervened at least four times in proceedings to the benefit of Applied Underwriters, a workers’ compensation insurer that directed campaign donations to Lara. The commissioner met several times with the Applied owner, who needed the department’s approval for a proposed sale, the Union-Tribune reported.
In September 2019, Lara issued a public apology and announced he was suspending all campaign fundraising.
“I can and will do better,” he said at the time.
Jim Boren, executive director of the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State University, said elected officials who break campaign promises can face a difficult re-election, although Lara is a Democrat in a state controlled by Democrats.
“In general, the insurance commissioner is a relatively obscure post, and California voters tend by default to vote for the Democratic candidate, so that’s an advantage for him,” Boren said.
“But I do think an opponent has a lot of room to come after him as far as transparency and the appropriateness of taking contributions from businesses that have interests in front of the commissioner,” he added.
Two candidates have filed papers to challenge his re-election. Dr. Vinson Eugene Allen, a former emergency room physician from Los Angeles, is seeking the Democratic Party nomination, and Green Party candidate Veronika Fimbres is a San Francisco nurse and transgender activist.
The new Lara contributions also come as the Department of Insurance continues to fight a lawsuit filed by an advocacy group seeking emails, meeting schedules and other material that generally is required to be released under the California Public Records Act.
A Los Angeles-based group called Consumer Watchdog requested records of meetings Lara may have held with a political mentor, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.
Nunez’s company and lobbyist Rusty Areias were hired by Applied Underwriters to help secure Department of Insurance approval of a proposed sale in 2019. They both are now suing the company for $2 million, alleging they did their job but were not paid.
Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said voters should be skeptical of elected officials who withhold public records from the public.
In addition to the donations he collected from unions and other major donors, Lara accepted smaller individual contributions since he actively restarted his campaign fundraising.
Records show Lara accepted and then returned $100 donated by Esteban Nunez, the son of the former Assembly speaker.
The younger Nunez was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his role in the stabbing death of a San Diego State University student in 2008. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted the sentence hours before leaving office in 2010 and Nunez was released in 2016.
Lara also reported a $500 contribution from Nora Vargas, the San Diego County supervisor. Vargas’s office did not respond to questions about her donation.
The elected insurance commissioner also accepted $4,700 from the Lockyer for Controller committee early last year, a campaign committee controlled by Bill Lockyer.
The former state treasurer and attorney general last year wrote an opinion piece for The San Francisco Chronicle as the lawyer representing the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
Campaign cash continues to roll in to the Lara re-election committee. The Service Employees International Union local from Los Angeles donated $9,800 on July 13 and a longshoremen’s group from San Pedro gave $8,100 two days later, according to late contribution reports.