Brown’s Weak Response To Oil Scandal

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Administration claims any member of public would get similar service

— Gov. Jerry Brown is one of the more interesting politicians to cover given his forthrightness. Agree or disagree with what he says – the world has “gone over the edge” because of global warming, for instance – but there’s little doubt he says what’s on his mind. Brown’s press conferences evoke laughter because of his “no BS” words and weird historical references.

He’s not your typical elected official, which is what’s so off-putting about his clod-footed handling of a recent scandal involving the use of state resources regarding his 2,700-acre family ranch near Williams. The administration’s reaction to an Associated Press report is what one one would expect from any politician caught in a snare. The excuses are literally unbelievable. The usually loquacious Brown didn’t have anything to say.

Last week, AP reported Brown “last year directed state oil and gas regulators to research, map and report back on any mining and oil drilling history and ‘potential for future oil and gas activity’ at the Brown family’s private land in Northern California ….” At Brown’s request, regulators produced a 51-page report over two days, even though elected officials are not allowed to use public resources for personal reasons.

The state’s oil and gas agency called this a proper and legal use of state resources. Administration officials said the governor got no better service than any member of the public might get, and they provided three examples of similar research provided to others.

As AP noted, two of the examples were not for private individuals. One was for the city of Los Angeles, which wields a good bit of clout. Another was for an environmental organization. One was a much shorter request provided to an individual, whose name was redacted. The administration also argued that these are just public records that anyone can compile, although it’s unlikely any ordinary person would know how to do this.

AP interviewed industry and past agency officials who said members of the public might get a little help but never anything this extensive or this quick. Even a prominent columnist who defends the governor found that explanation far-fetched. “I’d be seriously shocked if this had gone down as the Brown administration implies: That the governor received no better treatment from his minions than any ordinary citizen would,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ George Skelton.

The ongoing news has gotten worse for the governor. “A worker in the state oil and gas regulatory agency lodged a whistleblower’s complaint over being ordered to prepare a state map of the oil and gas potential, history and geology of … Brown’s family ranch, the worker and her attorney said,” according to another AP report. Furthermore, the article interviewed one former official who said state workers “described Brown as being irate” because a supervisor sent him information via email – and such info could be accessed through open-records laws.

Some conservatives have jumped on the matter. Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, told the Breitbart news service, “The governor’s actions appear to be a clear violation of well-known state law prohibiting the use of public resources for personal gain.” Grove called for an investigation and possible prosecution and fine.

Some critics have viewed the scandal through the lens of hypocrisy. The governor’s climate-change agenda calls for the dramatic reduction in the use of fossil fuels, although in fairness the governor has been favorable toward fracking and oil-and-gas exploration in the short term. The report found no potential there, so it will remain unclear what he intended to do with the information.

The most entertaining response came from the mischief-makers at Capitol Watchdog, which set up a Web site that lets people ask the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources to provide the same service for their property. More than 200 people have sent requests, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which quotes a department official saying it will indeed provide a no-cost map to those who request it. So the administration is doubling-down on its original explanation.

Maybe as the four-term governor becomes nostalgic about his role in California history, he failed to make the proper distinctions between his public and personal lives. Or maybe it's because of arrogance.

"This isn't much of a scandal in the grand scheme of things, but it is definitely an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds and an abuse of officeholder authority," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP political consultant and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "What's most striking, though, is the lack of any acknowledgement of inappropriate behavior or apology from the governor."

Indeed. Clearly, Brown should have known better. And the governor certainly should have dealt with it in a more characteristic and forthright way. Luckily, there’s still time for Brown to return to form with a no-BS apology.

Greenhut is the San Diego Union-Tribune's California columnist. Write to him at [email protected]

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