SACRAMENTO — By resigning Wednesday amid an ever-deepening probe of his actions, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush joined a long line of California politicians besmirched by scandal.
It's not an easy place to be, and those who have traveled in his shoes, or know a fallen politician who has, predict tough times for Quackenbush.
"He's going to have to move ahead," said GOP consultant Ken Khachigian, an ally of President Richard Nixon. "He's a young man and he's got to put this behind him as quickly as he can. I think politically for the next few years he's going to be radioactive. I don't think he can run for office. That said, others have come back."
The photogenic Republican with visions of greater glory as governor is the first elected insurance commissioner to be forced from office; the job was made an elected post in 1988. But he is certainly not the first statewide official to exit under undignified circumstances.
That distinction belongs to California's first governor, Peter H. Burnett, who resigned barely a year after being elected in 1849. He was plagued by charges of "official duplicity" by a San Francisco official he had fired and by opposition in the Legislature. But efforts to impeach him had failed, and historical accounts say it is unclear whether he actually did anything wrong by the standards of his day.
In 1857, state Treasurer Henry Bates resigned under the threat of impeachment amid accusations that he embezzled public funds and committed a "stupendous fraud" at California's expense. Quackenbush, numerous politicians said Wednesday, was about to come under a similar impeachment threat.
In the mid-1950s, several public officials were caught up in a scandal over bribes to obtain liquor licenses. The central figure, former state Board of Equalization Chairman William G. Bonelli, went on the lam to Mexico. He died there, still a fugitive, in 1970, after fighting off several extradition attempts.
Most recently, Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig departed under a cloud in 1994 after being convicted on conflict-of-interest charges stemming from his wife's ties to a nonprofit firm that got state contracts. His four felony convictions were later reduced to misdemeanors, but the damage to the career of Honig, who had earned national praise for his education reforms, was done.
Also pressured into resignation after a criminal conviction was Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke, who was found guilty of lying to a U.S. Senate committee during Watergate-related testimony. He left office a day before he was sentenced, although the conviction was later overturned.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a particularly scandalous time in California politics, as the now-legendary FBI shrimp caper netted a bounty of 14 corrupt public officials and lobbyists. The feds' wide-ranging sting operation centered on spreading money around Sacramento to grease the way for a bogus bill, and seeing who took the bait.
Many did. Those eventually convicted included former Democratic state Sens. Alan Robbins of Van Nuys and Joseph Montoya of Whittier, former Republican Assemblyman Pat Nolan of Glendale and GOP state Sen. Frank Hill of Whittier. One lawmaker, former Sen. Paul Carpenter of Cypress, fled the country to avoid prison time and was eventually nabbed in Costa Rica.
Living with the stain of such a fall from grace is not easy, said one of those former lawmakers, who requested anonymity.
"You lose the power and recognition and you lose it quickly," he said. "A lot of people you thought were your friends don't know you anymore.
"It's going to be tough on his children," he added of Quackenbush, who has three, "because they love their father and some of their classmates may say cruel things."
Eventually, however, life goes on, and even the most scarred politicians pick up the pieces. Khachigian, Nixon's old advisor, said it would be unwise to assume that this will be Quackenbush's final legacy.
After Nixon went into exile in San Clemente following his resignation in 1974, he "was very down," said Khachigian, who remained with Nixon to work on his memoirs. "But on the other hand, he quickly began looking ahead. He was forward-looking. That's what saved him in the end. He became architect of his own comeback."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Next Steps * Gov. Gray Davis will appoint interim insurance commissioner.
* State Assembly Insurance Committee will produce, within weeks, a "final report" on the Quackenbush case. No more legislative hearings are scheduled.
* State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer will continue investigation of Quackenbush's foundations.
* Fair Political Practices Commission will continue investigating.
Times staff writer Julie Tamaki contributed to this story.