Political Corruption

By: 
Gerrie Schipske

 

A curious thing happened in Orange County a couple of years ago. Former Orange County Supervisor, Janet Nguyen, in her position as a trustee of the county-run CALOPTIMA Health Plan, accepted a $1,800 campaign contribution from an attorney who she then voted to receive a $300,000 legal services contract. Was this illegal?

Was it illegal that the same supervisor engineered the re-organization of this $1.5 billion dollar health care plan for the low-income and elderly of the county to include more of the medical industry on its board, and accepted $100,000 in campaign contributions from the same medical industry?

Well, it was certainly unethical on both counts. But violations of ethics don’t send politicians to jail and Supervisor Nguyen was not charged because the enforcement agencies found that the current laws have been “narrowly written” and therefore, her conduct was not a violation.

In English, that means there are glaring loop holes in the California Political Reform Act.

First, the law allows elected officials to accept campaign contributions as Supervisor Nguyen did because campaign contributions are not considered giving money directly to the elected official and therefore, “contribute-then-vote” scenarios do not constitute a “conflict of interest.” Really!

Second, the CPRA, which was amended by the Levine Act, prohibits any officer of an agency (such as trustee of CALOPTIMA) who received a contribution of more than $250 from a party or participant with a matter pending before the agency in the 12 months before the proceeding from making, participating in making, or attempting to influence the decision in the proceeding and for three months following the date a final decision is rendered in the matter.

However, this only applies to matters involving: “license, permit, or other entitlement for use” as all business, professional, trade and land use licenses and permits and all other entitlements for use, including entitlements for land use, all contracts (other than competitively bid, labor, or personal employment contracts), and all franchises.”

A contract for legal services is a “personal employment contract” and therefore the contribution by the same individual who will receive the contract did not rise to a violation under this narrowly crafted law.

Politicians should not continue to be rewarded for the loopholes in the law. We need to make it clear that campaign contributions are considered to be given “for the benefit” of the candidate or elected official and therefore, present a “conflict of interest” if a vote is taken on behalf of the contributor. Elected officials need to recuse themselves from votes involving their contributors.

More importantly, candidates and elected officials must exhibit ethical behavior. It shouldn’t matter if something isn’t “illegal.” If the behavior is “unethical” is should not be tolerated by voters.

[Editor’s Note: Nguyen currently represents east Long Beach as part of the 34th State Senate district.]

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