California Legislators Hire Pals, Ex-Colleagues With No Bidding

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When Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg launched an effort this year to root out waste in state spending, he tapped a Sacramento attorney who is one of his best friends to lead it.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass turned to a termed-out assemblywoman and a politically connected former utility company executive, among others, to supplement her staff with outside expertise.

The Legislature’s nine personal service contracts — touted as a way to cuts costs in tough times — went largely to those with personal relationships or political ties to lawmakers.

None of the nine contracts was competitively bid, so anyone not known to Capitol officials had no chance to be hired or to propose a lower fee. Most have vague terms that don’t require specific hours to be worked.

The Bee obtained the contracts under a public-records request to examine the extent of behind-the-scenes hiring that does not show up on staff rosters.

Five of the nine pacts involve retired government workers who are getting both a pension and a paycheck from taxpayers, working as legislative consultants or aides.

The Legislature will pay about $458,000 this year under its nine personal service contracts, only a tiny fraction of its $262 million budget.

Bass says it makes fiscal sense to fill special needs with short-term contracts rather than by hiring more full-time employees.

"I just think it’s an efficient way to go about business," she said.

Bass, in rescinding pay increases to more than 120 Assembly aides this month, touted belt-tightening by saying the house had "left several positions unfilled and used temporary or part-time contracts to fill other roles."

Steinberg hired close friend Steinberg, through the Senate Rules Committee, contracted with John Adkisson’s one-man law firm to run the Senate’s new investigative unit and to provide legal advice for $150,000 this year — as a part-time job, records show.

Adkisson has a separate $150,000 contract with the state Legislative Counsel Bureau to handle litigation and training for the Senate, duties he has performed for more than a decade, long before Steinberg joined the house.

Steinberg calls Adkisson "one of my dearest friends," a closeness tracing to law school days together and to the senator’s first stab at politics in 1992, when Adkisson ran his successful campaign for Sacramento City Council.

But Steinberg said he is extending no favors by tapping Adkisson for the new oversight role.

"He’s the finest investigative lawyer I have ever known," Steinberg said.

Adkisson’s oversight unit recently released a 116-page report that identified shortcomings in the state’s $5.4 billion program of in-home care to disabled or frail, elderly adults.

"He’s multitalented and someone who, when I became pro tem, I wanted to have on my team," Steinberg said.

Adkisson said a sizable chunk of the $300,000 from his two state contracts — $87,821 more than the state’s gubernatorial salary — will go to his law firm’s tax, bookkeeping, malpractice insurance and other expenses. He also must pick up his own medical insurance and pension costs.

"It sounds like I’m making a lot more money than I am," he said.

Adkisson said he quit a more lucrative job at the Hanson Bridgett law firm — where Steinberg was a colleague for two years — to serve the Capitol exclusively.

"This was something where I could really do public service," he said.

In the Assembly, Bass awarded a $64,000, six-month contract to termed-out Assemblywoman Patty Berg and a $45,000, six-and-a-half-month contract to Tommy Ross, a Southern California Edison retiree who has been active in past efforts to elect African American legislators.

Berg, a Eureka Democrat, helped Bass secure the speakership last year. Ross is a former vice president of the massive utility who managed its lobbying and political donations.

Ross became an adviser to Bass in January, one month after leaving Edison, which donated $210,000 to a failed ballot measure pushed by Bass and other Democratic leaders to alter legislative term limits last year.

Bass and Steinberg say taxpayers are sure of getting their money’s worth because the leaders know, trust and can vouch for the abilities of contractors such as Berg, Ross and Adkisson.

But Doug Heller of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit group that monitors Capitol spending, said politicians only increase public cynicism when they appear to play favorites.

"I just wish that elected officials would understand how important it is for them to reconnect with the public rather than constantly make choices that raise questions," Heller said.

Work hours undefined personal service contracting is nothing new at the Capitol.

Former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, D-Los Angeles, sparked controversy six years ago for contracting with two former lawmakers, a previous member of his own staff and the son of a former boss.

Of the Legislature’s nine current contracts, only one requires a specific number of hours to be worked, though two others set maximum compensation and an hourly rate.

Four Senate and one Assembly contract are held by retirees supplementing pensions.

Larry Baird, for example, is a former legislative aide and Energy Commission analyst who stretches his $5,673 retirement pay with an additional $2,000 per month for serving as a Senate consultant.

Greg Schmidt, Senate secretary, said the house has a policy against hiring retired state workers but has made several exceptions through contracts at the request of specific senators.

"We don’t want to encourage that, but in these couple of cases, they go, ‘Aw, c’mon,’ " Schmidt said.

Most of the Legislature’s personal service contracts are vague about tasks to be accomplished.

Ross’ contract, for example, describes his duties only as "consulting services to the state," and Berg must help with "projects on behalf of the Speaker’s Office of Member Services" and on "member training and budget and policy issues."

Berg is assigned to help train new Assembly members in house operations and procedures — and to update training materials, Bass said.

Berg displays a crammed appointments calendar and a binder of documents as evidence of her work, which she said takes 10 to 20 hours a week, often more.

Ross is conducting research on candidates for board appointments and assisting administratively, not with policy, on a legislative working group to set alternative energy standards, Bass said.

Two ‘promote’ speaker The Assembly pays $50 an hour in part-time contracts with a longtime acquaintance of Bass, Bettie Joan McKinney, and with a retired legislative aide from the 1990s, Joy Atkinson, to assist in Los Angeles activities ranging from town hall meetings to an informational event for clergy.

Atkinson’s contract includes "promoting the speaker’s presence on policy issues by maintaining strategic relationships with Southern California’s African American constituencies and ethnic media markets."

McKinney is committed to "promote the speaker’s presence on policy issues as needed" and to "provide technical assistance and training as well as carry out special projects."

Only personal service contracts that pay by the hour — those of Atkinson and McKinney — are required by law to document time spent on the job, said Jon Waldie, Assembly administrator.

Atkinson said she is doing the same type of work for the same Los Angeles community that she served many years ago under former Assemblywoman Gwen Moore.

"I’m doing community outreach, I’m doing legislative work, because that’s what I did for 16 years when I worked for the Legislature," she said.

Bass, asked about public perception of contracts with acquaintances, said she strives to do what is best for the state, regardless of fallout.

"You know what? I can’t live my life on perception," she said. "If I need to get it done, I’m going to do it."


The Assembly and Senate have nine current personal service contracts, totaling about $458,000 this year:

* Law offices of John D. Adkisson, $12,500 monthly, from Jan. 1-Dec. 31, to provide legal services to the Senate, including supervision of a new unit to investigate wasteful state spending. Adkisson is a veteran attorney and close friend of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

* Patty Berg, $10,675 monthly, from Feb. 1-July 31, to assist in training newly elected Assembly members and other projects. Berg, a former Democratic assemblywoman, was termed out of the Legislature last year.

* Tommy Ross of Pinnacle Strategic Group, $7,500 monthly, from Jan. 1-July 15, to furnish unspecified consulting services to the Assembly. Ross retired from Southern California Edison last year as a vice president. 

* Anne Baker, $7,083 monthly, from Jan. 26- Dec. 31, to serve as chief consultant to the Senate Select Committee on Delta Sustainability and Stewardship. She is a state retiree whose resume includes a stint as deputy director of external affairs for the California Environmental Protection Agency.

* Denis Quinn, $3,062 monthly, from Feb. 1, 2008-Dec. 31, 2009, to serve as a district office manager for Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. Quinn is a former painter who retired from the Bay Area Rapid Transit District.

* Larry Baird, $2,000 monthly, from June 1, 2007-June 30, 2009, to serve as a Senate consultant on environmental and energy issues. Baird, a retiree, is a former Democratic legislative aide and California Energy Commission employee.

* Joy Atkinson, $50 per hour to a maximum of $32,000, from Sept. 1, 2008-June 30, 2009, to assist Assembly Speaker Karen Bass in community outreach and media contacts. Atkinson, a retiree, was an aide to Democratic Assemblywoman Gwen Moore, who left the Legislature in 1994.

* Bettie Joan McKinney, $50 per hour to a maximum of $10,500, from Dec. 1, 2008-June 30, 2009, to assist in community outreach, technical assistance and special projects for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass. McKinney is a longtime acquaintance of Bass and a retiree who once worked for Pacific Bell and Communications Workers of America.

* Rex Moen, $2,530 monthly, from March 16, 2007-March 15, 2010, to serve as district representative in east Kern County for Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield. Moen, a retiree, is a former GOP legislative employee.

Contact the author, Jim Sanders, at the Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538 or [email protected]

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