SACRAMENTO — "The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
--James Madison, "The Federalist Papers"
State Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush should have listened up in government class. He should have paid attention to those lectures about checks and balances, about separation of powers.
If he had, it's doubtful that today he'd need a criminal defense attorney.
Madison's warning about the "tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands" is every bit as pertinent today in California's Capitol as it was in 1787 in the infant republic.
Put simply, if Quackenbush had used the system as our nation's founders had intended--indeed, as the California Constitution provides--he would not be in his current mess.
Quackenbush wanted to be all things--executive, judiciary, legislative--and he was, until that aberrance tripped him up.
He was the prosecutor and judge of insurance companies; this was proper, it's his function as an executive branch regulator. But when the regulator intruded into the Legislature's function of controlling the government purse strings, that was seizing too much power--for the public's good and his own.
"You do not want a prosecutor to benefit from fines," notes Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge), citing just one problem. "If that's tolerated, you've set up a perverse incentive for unjust prosecutions."
The commissioner could have fined misbehaving insurers and deposited the money into the state's general fund, which the Legislature controls, subject to gubernatorial veto. Checks and balances. Separation of powers. He could have proposed projects for that money, such as helping earthquake victims.
Instead, Quackenbush circumvented the Legislature by strong-arming the companies--
threatening them with much larger fines if they didn't cooperate--and extracting $12.8 million in "voluntary donations" to nonprofit foundations that served his political interests. The money was placed out of the Legislature's reach--and wiser hands.
Legislators could have saved Quackenbush from himself.
It's hard to envision legislative budget-writers allowing Quackenbush to spend money ostensibly generated for Northridge earthquake victims on, for example, his sons' football camp or the Sacramento Urban League. Or on $3 million in self-promoting TV ads.
That's why it was so ironic when the Republican commissioner stalked out of a Senate Insurance Committee hearing Tuesday, refusing to answer any legislators' questions. He should have been spending more time in legislative hearings the past couple of years, not less. He should have been heeding the legislators' counsel--so he would not now be needing legal counsel.
"If I were in his spot, I would have stayed and answered the questions," observed veteran Republican Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine.
Quackenbush's flimsy excuse for running from the committee was a 14-month-old e-mail written by a mid-level Assembly researcher to her boyfriend, who since has become the Senate Insurance Committee staff director. Referring to Quackenbush, the researcher asserted: "He is very adept at warding off controversy. If we do not completely ambush him, he will slide out of it."
Quackenbush claimed this clumsy e-chat confirmed his suspicions that the committee was plotting "a personal political ambush." And upon the advice of his attorney, the commissioner dramatically announced, he was taking a hike.
He left the hearing in shambles--and his career in even worse tatters than before.
But it's clear that Quackenbush's primary concern no longer is saving a political career. It's staying out of prison. When an elected official shows up at a legislative hearing--appearing before former colleagues--and is armed with a criminal defense attorney, it's an ugly sight.
And when he's sending out pleas to GOP activists attacking every fallen politician's favorite target--the news media--it has a panicky sound.
About the only people defending him are his wife and those he's paying.
"His career is over," one influential Republican legislator told me. "Our party still has to recover from the last election. Spending a lot of time defending the indefensible would be counterproductive."
In the Capitol, many are hoping Quackenbush will resign so they--and he--can avoid impeachment.
He's a politician who flunked the government course--and sadly failed in his job.