It’s rare that you get to hear what’s in the brain of a powerful politician because his phone conversations were taped.
Listening to Jerry Brown opine, berate and spin reporters about their age, his age, what they should and should not be reporting on, and his superiority to other gubernatorial candidates and figures like Hillary Clinton reminds you exactly why telephone conversations should be confidential.
This is some pretty embarrassing stuff for the attorney general and former governor who wants to be governor again. His tone, arrogance, and obsession with his own image as it’s seen in the media are anything but gubernatorial.
A sample. Brown on Hillary: "She didn’t work with Mother Theresa. She didn’t spend six months working in Zen Buddhism. She didn’t take Linda Rondstandt to Africa. She didn’t have her own astronaut."
Brown had to release the transcripts because his own communications director taped the phone conversations with reporters surreptitiously and, I believe, illegally.
The whole affair only came to light when my colleague and mentor at Consumer Watchdog Harvey Rosenfield complained that Brown had rewritten the official title and summary of a proposed ballot measure to exclude any reference to insurance premium increases after the measure’s sponsor, Mercury Insurance (a donor) pressured Brown’s office.
Brown’s team went apoplectic over the charge, and, as the transcript show, leaned heavily on editors for the San Francisco Chronicle to keep the story out of the paper or rewrite it. Brown’s press flack e-mailed the editor a transcript of a conversation between top attorney general officials and the Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci. That led Marinucci to question whether Scott Gerber, Brown’s communications director, had been taping conversations with reporters.Indeed he had, which gets us back to Brown’s demeanor on the transcripts.
The public should judge for itself the appropriateness of what Jerry Brown says.
A few public policy issues must be dealt with as well:
First, Brown shouldn’t be allowed to investigate his own office’s actions in this matter. He issued a white wash report yesterday blaming only the rogue P-R flack Gerber (fired last week) for the surreptitious taping and claiming the conduct was not illegal because the conversations were "on the record." That just doesn’t comport with a reasonable reading of California Penal Code 632. A person talking to a reporter may not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, but the reporter had a reasonable expectation that her comments wouldn’t be recorded.
Also, in one of the e-mails released with the transcripts, Brown’s top deputy is informed that Gerber wants to tape the conversation with Marinucci. Chief Deputy Jim Humes claimed not to remember reading the e-mail. That just doesn’t appear credible. Another independent law enforcement agency needs to investigate and depose key participants, including asking whether anyone outside the Atty. Gen.’s office, like top political aides to Brown, saw these transcripts.
Then there’s the issue that Brown is clearly running for governor in April if you read the transcript of the conversation with Associated Press reporter Beth Fouhy. He even says he has "two jobs." Yet Brown hadn’t opened up a committee to run for governor. The Fair Political Practices Commission needs to look at this because it appears that Brown was campaigning for office and should have opened up a gubernatorial committee in April, when the conversation with Fouhy took place. If Brown spent or raised money for the office, he should have created a committee, and the interview suggests he was doing both.
Lastly, there’s the original matter of Mercury Insurance Company’s anti-consumer ballot initiative. Brown rewrote the official title and summary for the measure that will allow insurance companies to lower or raise rates based on whether a motorist has had continuous insurance coverage. The measure has not changed on this point, yet Brown struck from the second summary, which appears at the head of the initiative and on the ballot, any reference to premium increases. He only mentions discounts. That’s one sided. More here for a deeper explanation.
Mercury Insurance, the initiative’s backer, gave Brown’s Attorney General campaign committee $13,000 the day before it poured $500,000 into a campaign committee for the ballot measure. Brown needs to return the money and give the responsibility for an accurate title and summary over to an independent third party.
All of Brown’s laudable spiritual, charitable and political growth has clearly inflated, not deflated, his ego. Yet to govern California with its present woes Brown will need to check that ego at the door and dig in.