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Dunn Made for Post as Leader of Energy Probe

Profile: State senator, whose investigation of price-gouging is striking pay dirt, has formidable legal skills.


The clout of the state Senate investigation into alleged price-gouging by California electricity generators was evident Friday when Sen. Joe Dunn took his seventh phone call in three days from H. Ross Perot.

The former presidential candidate and chairman of Perot Systems Corp. first called Dunn's office Wednesday after the legislator made public the company's 44-page PowerPoint presentation detailing how to manipulate California's electricity market to control prices. Perot's firm designed the market's computer systems.

The Perot primer, which outlined "holes" in California's electricity bidding process--allegedly for electricity producers in the late 1990s--was delivered to Dunn's office buried in a shipment of documents from Reliant Energy Co. Four weeks earlier, documents obtained by Dunn's Senate Select Committee on Price Manipulation of the Electricity Market revealed the catchy names Enron gave its California trading strategies: Death Star, Get Shorty and Fat Boy.

The revelations focused national attention on the Santa Ana Democrat's quest, begun quietly 17 months ago, to delve into allegations that manipulation of California's energy market led to price spikes, and electricity shortages in the spring and summer of 2000, and finally rolling blackouts in December 2000. The committee's findings will help determine whether California can recoup $9 billion for alleged overcharges and change the terms on $42 billion in contracts to buy future electricity.

In many ways, Dunn, 43, is perfectly poised for the task. Born and raised in St. Paul, Minn., he was the youngest of five boys in a family with three generations of laborers. He earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota and went to work for a consumer advocacy firm. In 1985, he moved to Orange County and went to work for Robinson, Calcagnia & Robinson, whose founding partner, Mark Robinson, is a major Democratic donor and former president of the Consumer Attorneys of California. Dunn represented Los Angeles County in litigation against the tobacco industry. He also oversaw plaintiffs suing over faulty breast implants, was the lead attorney in a lawsuit over defective artificial-heart valves and coordinated lawsuits against the makers of the diet drug fen-phen.

In 1998, Dunn moved to central Orange County to challenge then-state Sen. Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove, a major donor to Republican and conservative causes whose district had edged into Democratic territory. Dunn and his wife, Diane, and children--Sarah, 10, and John, 8--live in Santa Ana.

Dunn's meticulous style, honed by years of complex trial work, was evident even before his election: He and his campaign staff hand-delivered mums--20,000 in all--to every female voter in the district older than 60.

"If it wasn't for my background, I don't think I would have been able to do this," Dunn said of his committee's work, which involves sifting through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents.

Dunn and his committee spent months demanding that private energy documents be turned over for public inspection, even citing Enron for contempt on a unanimous, bipartisan vote. Last month, Enron's board of directors waived the company's attorney-client privilege, the last logjam to disclosure. The Enron "Death Star" memo arrived soon afterward.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) said no one knew what would be uncovered by the Senate Select Committee on Price Manipulation of the Electricity Market.

"Joe's ... very thorough and he's been building the facts," Burton said. "He's very tenacious."

Sen. Bill Morrow, the ranking Republican on the seven-member select committee, said he and Dunn are polar opposites on issues such as tort reform, but share a common goal for the investigation.

"He's the plaintiff's attorneys' golden child," said Morrow of San Juan Capistrano. "He's the poster boy for their agenda. I'm on the opposite side of that coin. We butt heads all the time. Having said that, while we disagree on so many of these issues, we can walk away and go have a beer together."

Morrow and Dunn agreed not to let partisanship undermine the committee work or grandstand its findings. "There are much higher interests at stake," Morrow said. "Neither one of us has been unmindful of the political sensitivities we face. But whatever breaks, breaks--no matter who it might be embarrassing to."

He joined another GOP conservative, Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), to halt a program that required drivers to pay additional fees for registering vehicles, then wait for a rebate by mail.

In 1999, Dunn's freshman year, he was dubbed the Senate's Ralph Nader for investigating Caltrans over faulty work on bridges in the three-freeway Orange Crush interchange in Santa Ana and Orange, and for oversized trucks being misrouted and hitting bridges too low for clearance.

The energy pricing investigation will continue past the Legislature's Sept. 1 adjournment and into next year, Dunn said. He'll take time out to campaign for reelection in November, when he faces Republican Araceli Gonzales, a former member of the Cudahy City Council.

"We're going to get to the truth of this and we're going to make the truth known," he said.

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