The Los Angeles Times
SACRAMENTO — For lobbyists in this state capital, the rules are pretty straightforward: befriend legislators; be discreet; don’t embarrass the people whose vote you may need another day.
So Jamie Court, a consumer activist based in Santa Monica, seems to be taking a distinctly self-destructive path.
Court recently made public partial Social Security numbers of legislators who rejected a bill aimed at protecting people’s privacy. Under a giant “WANTED” logo, Court’s Web site shows thumbnail pictures of nine members of the Assembly Banking Committee who opposed the bill or didn’t vote, coupled with the first four digits of each one’s Social Security number.
Lawmakers are furious, charging that Court’s tactics amount to a kind of blackmail. Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson asked the California Highway Patrol to investigate. The state police in turn asked the attorney general’s office for guidance on whether a crime may have been committed, and is waiting to hear back, according to a CHP spokeswoman. A newly created Special Committee on Protocol also will look into the matter, Wesson’s office said.
Legislators want to see if Court’s actions run afoul of Article IV of the state Constitution, which makes it a felony to try to influence a legislator’s vote through intimidation.
To Court, it is the legislators who flouted the Constitution. Look at the first paragraph, he said, which declares privacy rights are “inalienable.”
Court isn’t worried about the anger coming his way. He said he merely wanted to drive home the point that everyone’s privacy is jeopardized in an era when the most sensitive banking and personal records can be bought and sold on the Internet for a few dollars.
Far from backing off, he confirmed that he also could purchase the Social Security numbers of White House advisor Karl Rove, U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and CIA chief George J. Tenet for $26 apiece. (Court struck out with George W. Bush.)
Of the state’s governing class, Court said: “They really think of themselves as kings and queens whose rings have to be kissed.”
Court’s guerrilla tactics have turned him into something of a pariah in Sacramento, a conspicuous misfit in a Capitol culture he says has come to resemble one big “commercial transaction.”
In just the last two months, Court has parried insurance companies, banks, chambers of commerce and corporate interests in statehouse skirmishes that have turned ugly.
At a Senate Insurance Committee hearing in May, his microphone was cut off and he was escorted to the back of the room after suggesting that lawmakers were influenced by campaign contributions.
“I’m not in this to make money,” said Court, executive director of the Santa Monica-based nonprofit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
“I’m not in this to be a lobbyist who can communicate to legislators on a friendly basis. I’m here to stand up for the public and let the public know when politicians pee on their shoes.”
That is the sort of talk that could sever alliances — were there alliances to sever. But wooing lawmakers isn’t Court’s focus.
He sees his role, rather, as educating voters about the backroom workings of Sacramento and the degree to which corporations and willing legislators foil the public interest.
At times, his methods antagonize even those lawmakers who might be sympathetic.
Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) was one of only three Banking Committee members who voted for the bill that would have barred financial institutions from selling or sharing personal records without customers’ written approval. Wiggins said that if Court believes he is helping the cause, he is mistaken.
“It’s a cuckoo way of going around making a point,” Wiggins said in an interview. She added: “Hopefully, we can minimize the damage this guy’s doing.”
State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who sponsored the privacy legislation, sent Court a letter denouncing his approach.
“It is ironic that your organization would violate people’s privacy rights under the guise of enhancing privacy protections for Californians,” she wrote. “I neither need nor want help like this.”
Court wrote a reply the same day: “So who are you to lecture us for exposing the truth — which is that everyone’s privacy is at risk — and the hypocrisy of lawmakers who don’t care about anybody’s privacy but their own?”
Though she sponsored SB1, Speier gets no special deference from Court. The foundation posted her picture under a “WANTED” sign after she abstained from voting on a measure that would have barred companies with three felony convictions from doing business in California.
“He’s fierce and relentless and an unstoppable force,” said Harvey Rosenfield, who started the foundation in 1985. “And the lawmakers are terrified of that.”
For the capital’s mainstream lobbying set, watching Court is like watching a self-immolation — from a safe distance.
“When you represent insurers or large businesses, taking a threatening approach is suicidal,” said Dan Dunmoyer, president of the Personal Insurance Federation. “This is a town of relationships. And today’s opponent is tomorrow’s ally.”
Court, 36, works out of a cluttered office in the foundation’s headquarters. A sign on his wall quotes Dante: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
He is one of eight people at the nonprofit, whose $800,000 budget comes largely from foundations and private donors. Court’s salary is $100,000.
A graduate of Pomona College, Court has long been active in progressive causes. He has served as an advocate for the homeless and worked for church-based groups promoting anti-poverty and housing initiatives. He is married to a civil rights attorney.
His group champions a variety of progressive causes: keeping insurance premiums down, protecting whistle-blowers, defending patients’ rights. Written on an office chalkboard is one word, repeated again and again: “Greed.”
Court speaks with abundant self-assurance, in gusts of indignation over what he sees as a Sacramento morality so repugnant he says he visits the Capitol as little as possible.
There are few shades of gray. In a recent news release about one of his targets — the Chamber of Commerce — he rolled out his own “10 Commandments” for reform: “Thou shall not cheat the taxpayer… Thou shall not steal the worker’s vote… “
Shunning expensive dinners with lawmakers, Court presses his agenda through a blitz of Web postings, op-ed pieces, cable TV appearances and a new book decrying the evils of big business, “Corporateering.” The idea is to build a case through direct public appeals.
Still, some wonder if what he’s promoting is public policy or Jamie Court.
“He’s Jamie-one-note,” Speier said in an interview. “And Jamie’s one note is to say, ‘Everyone is corrupt but me.’ I won’t buy that.”
The foundation’s tactics veer toward the personal, the theatrical. In 2000, the group printed up cards depicting Gov. Gray Davis on a milk carton to illustrate its contention that Davis was missing during a debate over HMO reform.
In the mid-1990s, the foundation plopped a dead fish onto a table at a legislative hearing to make the point that various proposals involving HMO reform amounted to a red herring.
How else can the foundation compete? the staff asks.
“In Sacramento, the people with the most money win,” Rosenfield said.
“And therefore the lobbyists with the most money can afford to be quiet and reserved because their job is done in the dark, behind closed doors when they pass checks. So they don’t have to make a big stink… In that arena, our power comes from the public.”
With the privacy legislation stalled, Court is hoping to put the measure on the ballot in the spring. He doesn’t seem fazed by the prospect of an investigation. He never released the complete Social Security numbers and, in any case, he says, he is not the villain.
Rosenfield said: “The fact that they’re squealing like stuck pigs tells me they’re beginning to understand how the rest of us feel when our privacy is invaded on a daily basis… Instead of investigating the day-by-day corrupt and illegal influence of campaign contributions on their colleagues, some legislators want to investigate us.”