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California and the West | Capitol Journal

Lessons From the Past for a Very Visible Man

May 01, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The first thing you notice after walking into the Assembly's biggest hearing room is a large portrait. It's a mid-'60s likeness of the late, legendary Speaker Jesse Unruh. Last week, "Big Daddy's" spiritual presence seemed particularly fitting at the Quackenbush quizzing.

Unruh never looked better nor has his wisdom been more sage.

The intimidating pol's portrait hangs alone on the high wall behind committee members, his face grinning down at witnesses. On this day, the witness was Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, neck-deep in scandal.

I kept thinking about what Unruh used to say. Not about money being "the mothers milk of politics," or swilling the sauce and still voting against the host. What flashed through my mind was his lesser-known musings about politicians who think they're "invisible."

He'd shake his head in amazement at the seemingly sensible souls who would get elected to state office and after arriving in the capital believe they had become invisible. They'd be pampered by perks and power and lulled into the delusion that no ordinary folk could see their carryings-on.

Some would get picked up for drunken driving or whoring--especially in Unruh's day--and be dumbfounded. Votes and other official favors always have been sold. In the mid-'80s, the FBI began watching; the agents truly were invisible, the pols merely had on blinders. The feds convicted 14 politicians, staffers and lobbyists.

Now, the state attorney general is investigating some legally questionable nonprofit foundations created by Quackenbush with money coerced from insurance companies. The state Fair Political Practices Commission is probing political donations to Quackenbush from insurers he regulates.

These days, nobody is less invisible in Sacramento than Chuck Quackenbush.

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It's easy to see how the insurance commissioner might have imagined himself to be invisible. He's billeted in a remote tower seven blocks from the Capitol. Insurance is a complex subject that draws little media attention. Quackenbush must have felt unseen, unheard.

What other explanation can there be for dumb actions that violate the first rule of politics--don't do anything you wouldn't want to read about in the newspaper.

Like hitting up insurance companies for political money to pay off a home mortgage. Sure, that mortgage was part of his wife's campaign debt when she ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate. And transferring money from one politician's campaign committee to another's is legal. But good luck trying to explain your mortgage payoff to the public.

Unseemly political contributions and expenditures, however, aren't the focus of probes by the Legislature and attorney general. They're looking at two foundations, which the Legislature's legal advisor contends Quackenbush had no power to create.

Democratic lawmakers especially want to know how it was that the Republican commissioner initially threatened to fine insurance companies billions for mishandling claims after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and settled for a mere $12.8 million in "voluntary donations" to the foundations.

This isn't just partisan posturing. Veteran GOP Assemblyman Tom McClintock of Northridge jumped all over the Republican commissioner at the packed committee hearing. "Either [the insurers] violated the law and should have been fined or they were innocent and should have been left alone," McClintock asserted. "[A D.A.] doesn't say, 'Yeah, we know you robbed a bank, but if you contribute $100,000 to the United Way, we'll forget about it.' "

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Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer wants to know whether the foundations are operating as required under their charters. Are they operating independently of the commissioner, and helping consumers and earthquake victims? It's hard to argue they are.

Quackenbush's recently resigned deputy commissioner, George Grays, helped arrange foundation grants. Checks have gone to a football camp attended by two Quackenbush sons ($263,000), the Sacramento Urban League where Quackenbush is a board member ($500,000), a "100 Black Men" chapter ($200,000)--but none directly to quake victims.

Foundation money--$1.4 million--also has fed a feeding frenzy by GOP political and PR consultants, including $275,000 for Quackenbush's longtime guru, Joe Shumate.

"Mistakes were made," Quackenbush says. But he denies prior knowledge of the boggling payouts.

The foundations were invisible to him. And, of course, he was invisible.

Now what's really invisible is Quackenbush's once-promising political future.

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