Monday, April 02, 2007

Schwarzenegger's state-board picks raise charges of cronyism; His dentist and former chiropractor are among those with roles on oversight panels.
Schwarzenegger's state-board picks raise charges of cronyism
His dentist and former chiropractor are among those with roles on oversight panels.
By Peter Nicholas
Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A rash of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointees to state boards are facing complaints that they are unqualified, beholden to the industries they oversee or otherwise mired in conflicts of interest.

Schwarzenegger has installed longtime friends and political associates on several boards, giving rise to criticism that he is practicing cronyism while failing to adequately vet people who oversee billions of dollars' worth of economic activity and other public matters.

Last month, Schwarzenegger appointed his dentist to the state dental board. His former chiropractor now chairs the chiropractic panel.

Watchdog groups say the governor misunderstands the boards' purpose, which is to safeguard the public.

The chiropractic panel's primary role is to protect Californians from incompetence or fraud, according to its mission statement.

But when Schwarzenegger was asked recently about turmoil on the board, he said, "What is important to us is: Does the chiropractic board represent the chiropractors?"

Julianne D'Angelo Fellmeth, director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego law school, was taken aback. "If he really believes that, that is extremely troubling," she said.

Political patronage is not uncommon; elected officials often use their appointment powers to reward trusted friends. It is unclear how many such appointments Schwarzenegger has made, but he came into office on promises to change how state business was done, and had proposed abolishing 88 state panels that still exist.

The governor's office says all appointees are carefully screened. Criminal histories, civil suits, driving records and relevant news stories are thoroughly reviewed before appointments are made, a Schwarzenegger spokesman said.

"The governor has appointed more than 3,000 people to agencies, boards and commissions since taking office," said Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger's press secretary. "We try to identify the most talented people willing to serve, and to recruit candidates from both inside and outside government."

On the state chiropractic panel, friends of the governor face complaints that they're protecting the profession at the public's expense.

Board Secretary Franco Columbu, a chiropractor, was best man at the governor's wedding. Chairman Richard H. Tyler, the governor's former chiropractor, is another longtime associate; he greeted Schwarzenegger at the airport when the bodybuilder arrived in the U.S. in 1968. As chairman, Tyler plays a major role in setting the board's agenda.

Allegations that the board has abused its power were the focus of a three-hour hearing Wednesday in the Legislature. Lawmakers examined whether board members voted to endorse a chiropractic treatment because they wanted to protect a chiropractor facing criminal charges in San Joaquin County.

"This appears to have been an attempt to influence the judicial process," Assemblyman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park), who co-chaired the hearing, said afterward.

Eng said in an interview Friday that he intended to ask the governor to fire Tyler, Columbu and another board member.

At a recent meeting, the board ejected from the room its state-appointed attorney, Jana Tuton, who has questioned the legality of its actions. But first, Shawn Steele, a former Republican Party chairman who represents chiropractors in his private legal practice, briefly joined members on the dais, according to Tuton.

The public law center's Fellmeth, who has studied the board's minutes and reviewed tapes of previous meetings, said board members are "helping the wrong people. They're trying to help [chiropractors]. They should be trying to help the public."

In addition, e-mails among board members show board business being conducted in secret, in violation of California's open meetings law, according to legislative and board staff.

Legislative staff identified seven e-mails from August to December 2006 in which board members appeared to have violated the requirement that board business be done in public. Topics discussed in the e-mails include licenses for graduates of a Florida chiropractic college and agenda items for meetings.

On Oct. 3, Columbu sent an e-mail to five other panel members regarding a board matter. He received a response two days later from Tuton telling him that e-mails involving board business "can be a violation" of the law.

Schwarzenegger has taken no action to discipline the board.

"The governor feels the board is taking appropriate measures to ensure these mistakes won't happen again," McLear said.

He was referring to Tyler's pledge at the legislative hearing that board members would not interfere with disciplinary actions against chiropractors, would delegate personnel matters to the staff's executive director and would receive training on the open meetings law.

Another of the governor's choices appears to be struggling to win confirmation.

In February, Schwarzenegger named his appointments secretary, Timothy A. Simon, to the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the multibillion-dollar telecommunications and energy industries. The governor's staff issued a news release in which Schwarzenegger said Simon's background in business and financial services were "fantastic" assets.

Left unmentioned was Simon's tangled financial and personal history. He had been in bankruptcy for four years at the time of the appointment (he has since repaid his debts).

In 2001, a judge signed a restraining order forcing Simon to keep away from a man who said Simon was harassing him. The man was dating Simon's ex-wife. The same year, Simon's attorney submitted a brief in Simon's divorce case that said he was facing "extraordinary consumer debt" fed partly by credit card use.

In 2005, while Simon was still in bankruptcy, his ex-wife said in a court filing that he was driving expensive cars and taking vacations in Vietnam, China, the Caribbean and Mexico.

The Schwarzenegger administration "should have been more careful when they considered him," said Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland). The Senate has 11 months to confirm Simon.

McLear countered: "We did a full vetting. It didn't turn up anything that said he was less than qualified to serve the people of California."

Simon did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comments.

The presence of a governor's friends and associates on state boards can raise alarms simply because they might have access to the administration that other Californians lack.

Schwarzenegger named his dentist, John Bettinger, to the state Dental Board in February. That upset some hygienists, whose interests sometimes clash with those of the dentists who employ them. Hygienists fear that Bettinger's presence could give dentists an extra dose of political clout.

Hygienists want their own regulatory board — something Schwarzenegger vetoed last year. This year, hygienists are sponsoring a similar effort — and they are worried that the Dental Board will persuade the governor to kill the proposal again.

Tricia Osuna, a hygienist and former member of the board, complained about the Bettinger appointment last month in a letter to a fellow hygienist.

"This unusually close relationship creates a fertile environment for ... favoritism," Osuna said, "and unprecedented access to the executive branch."

Some of Schwarzenegger's nominations have proved untenable.

Last year, the governor named Kim Blackseth, a quadriplegic, to the state Building Standards Commission, which approves building codes.

At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, a parade of advocates for the disabled testified that Blackseth, a private consultant on disability issues, had been helping employers bypass laws that ensure access for the disabled.

Blackseth sent a letter to the Senate saying it was "unfathomable" to him that he was not representing "the disabled community."

Still, facing rejection by the Senate, he left the board.