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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Lockyer Prefers Action Over Talk in Power Crisis

April 02, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

ANAHEIM — Remember Bill Lockyer? Former state Senate leader, elected attorney general in 1998 by a hefty 10-point cushion?

Age 59. A liberal Democrat and civil libertarian who, regardless, supports the death penalty. Alameda County legislator for 25 years. Skilled in the political arts of finesse, nuance and timing, but also a policy wonk.

He has slipped under the radar with all the focus on energy, generating low wattage in the media spotlight. About the time Lockyer was getting elected, crime ceased being the No. 1 concern of voters. Education rose to the top. Now electricity.

Attorney general is the second most powerful job in Sacramento, but you'd never know it. Other officeholders have been attracting much more attention: The secretary of state is running for governor. The treasurer is pushing public power and peddling energy bonds. The controller is trying to become L.A.'s mayor.

Lockyer was on stage briefly Saturday at the Democratic State Convention in Anaheim, saying little about energy. By contrast, that was the main topic of other state politicians.

Gov. Gray Davis blamed Republicans and vowed "to clean up their mess."

Treasurer Phil Angelides offered "this warning to the out-of-state generators: If you do not take your foot off our throats . . . you may leave us no option but to [seize] your power plants." (Standing applause.)

Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin lamented that for the money the Davis administration spends in one week buying electricity, California could hire enough school counselors to match the national average. Now, California is dead last in counselors--a fact that becomes more obvious each time some troubled kid shoots up a school.

Controller Kathleen Connell, an outspoken Davis critic, declared: "I will not stand by and allow the California consumer and taxpayer to pick up the bill for this state's energy crisis. It won't happen." She didn't say how she'd stop it.

When it came Lockyer's turn, he merely commented: "I don't intend to offer a new or startling policy thought.

"But I will say this: Our office is the arm of the people in California. When we conclude . . . the energy generators and other businesses have been ripping off and gouging Californians, it will be my office that files the criminal and civil charges."(Standing applause and cheers.)

*

Afterward, I asked Lockyer why he hadn't said more about the issue on everyone's mind.

"I'm doing it, not just talking about it," the attorney general replied. "We're the ones doing the investigations, sorting through hundreds of boxes of documents and deposing [power] executives. We're doing the heavy lifting.

"Others seek to define themselves. I don't need to define myself. I'm doing the work."

Lockyer is involved in dozens of energy lawsuits. He's investigating wholesale pricing of both electricity and natural gas--looking into "manipulative behaviors."

"The problem is greed is not illegal," he notes. "The question is whether they've done illegal things to gouge us the way they are.

"But clearly," he adds, his voice rising, "we're getting robbed. . . . We're getting fleeced by these out-of-state generators."

Most of his targets are not cooperating, he says. They're demanding "confidentiality agreements" that would keep their deeds secret from the public. "I'm not going to agree to that. We're going to court with a legal crowbar to pry this information out of them."

*

Lockyer was the Senate leader in 1996 when the Legislature unanimously passed the now-infamous electricity deregulation bill. Prodded by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, lawmakers were trying to improve on a plan proposed by the Public Utilities Commission. The relearned lesson, he says: "Don't try to fix a bad bill--a bad idea."

"In retrospect," he adds, "we may well have unintentionally left the keys in the car. But it's still a crime to steal it."

Lockyer isn't critical of Davis--"I have a duty of loyalty to my client." He does think, however, we'd have been better off three months ago if the utilities had gone bankrupt. A judge might have found that the power producers had been unjustly profiteering and cut back their claims. But that move, he says, no longer made sense once the state also became a creditor.

Like all politicians running for reelection next year, Lockyer worries about the voters' reaction to blackouts and price hikes. "They don't get to vote on the practices of Enron or Duke," he says. "They only get to vote on people running for office."

If Lockyer survives in 2002, as expected, his name probably will be easy to remember four years from now. Like most AGs, he'll be running for governor--maybe as one who caught some robbers.

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