EDITORIAL by THE SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL BOARD

December 10, 2020

https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article247744605.html

In November, Gov. Gavin Newsom created a national scandal by attending a Sacramento lobbyist’s birthday dinner at the posh French Laundry restaurant. In December, Newsom has decided to appoint a different Sacramento lobbyist as his top aide in the governor’s office.

On Tuesday, Politico’s Carla Marinucci broke the story that lobbyist Jim DeBoo will replace Ann O’Leary as Newsom’s “senior staff” executive. Rumors of O’Leary’s impending departure, which had swirled for months, turned out to be true. And while it doesn’t seem like O’Leary was a good fit, Newsom’s decision to appoint a lobbyist to a powerful post raises troubling ethical questions.

Newsom took major hits for his hypocrisy after photos of the French Laundry affair became public. After all, Newsom spurned the very health guidelines he has prescribed for ordinary Californians. Aren’t we supposed to cancel holidays and avoid family gatherings and indoor dining? Yes, but Newsom didn’t.

Equally troubling, however, is the fact that Newsom paid hundreds of dollars — and knowingly risked political scandal — to attend a feast with lobbyists. The French Laundry photos provided a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes world in which powerful interests can privately cajole California’s chief executive over wine and nosh.

The photos showed an unmasked Newsom in deep conversation with top lobbyists from the California Medical Association. They were at the Napa County restaurant —where dinner costs over $300 per person — to celebrate the 50th birthday of Jason Kinney, who has worked with CMA.

DeBoo, Newsom’s new right hand, has close relationships with both Kinney and the CMA. While it’s surely just a coincidence that Newsom decided to elevate DeBoo a month after the French Laundry fiasco, the governor must take steps to clear up ethical concerns and conflicts of interest.

DeBoo has personal and business relationships with some of the most connected corporations, special interests and political consultants in California politics. He also has a consulting partnership with some of Newsom’s closest political advisors. 

How will Newsom draw the line between his state office and his 2022 re-election campaign? How will he make sure that that DeBoo’s former clients don’t become the de facto bosses of California’s highest office?

“DeBoo has made millions from special interests like Chevron, the medical insurance complex and big landlords,” said Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog, a longtime political opponent of oil companies and the CMA. “Now the Governor has turned over the keys to the castle to this big bucks lobbyist who could be their gatekeeper, their ears and their eyes inside.”

“It’s a big mistake for Newsom, a ticking time bomb,” he added.

It’s not unusual for California governors to appoint politically-connected insiders to key positions. Running the state requires deep knowledge of its politics and relationships with key interests and legislative leaders. DeBoo certainly has those. Hopefully, he’ll do a better job than his predecessor of keeping Newsom on track.

But at a moment when Newsom’s trust and credibility are in question, his choice of deputy smells a bit swampy. His political opponents and the political press will be on the lookout for any sign that the French Laundry Supper Club crew is cashing in on the hire. 

To guard against even the mere appearance of corruption, Newsom must take immediate steps to increase transparency and accountability in his office. These measures should include a requirement that DeBoo recuse himself from matters in which his former clients or business pals stand to profit. 

Complicated? Yes, but it’s necessary to avoid the further deterioration of Newsom’s ailing administration. And the governor — who has a weakness for flashy press announcements that later turn out to be flimsy on substance — shouldn’t imagine he can get away with proposing weak ethical guidelines that amount to little more than window dressing.

As he starts his re-election campaign in the face of a global pandemic, an economic catastrophe and multiplying political scandals, every decision he makes will receive intense scrutiny. His decision to hire a lobbyist to run his office will only increase the pressure. 

It’s quite possible that DeBoo is taking a big pay cut and stepping into a chaotic administration for the noblest of reasons. By erecting strong ethical firewalls to prevent conflicts of interest, and by making transparent his own political loyalties, Newsom can help to assure skeptical Californians that this is the case.