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Gov.'s Fake News Videos Ruled Illegal

Administration broke state law by using tax money to pay for one-sided releases, judge finds. At least some footage was aired.

December 02, 2005|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration violated state law by producing fake news videos touting his proposals to soften an array of pro-labor laws, including one to water down nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, a judge ruled Thursday.

Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly of Sacramento ordered that Schwarzenegger refrain from producing and distributing the videos, ruling that state law bars officials from using tax money to pay for one-sided releases, particularly when they advocate pending proposals to alter state laws and regulations.

Schwarzenegger administration officials responded to the ruling by removing two so-called video news releases from the state website. But Jehan Flagg, a spokeswoman for the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency, said the administration may appeal.

"Once again, public funds have been used inappropriately by this governor," said Rose Ann DeMoro, president of the California Nurses Assn., one of the labor groups that filed a suit. "This is so fundamentally inappropriate, what the governor has done."

Nurses and other workers had sued to block the Schwarzenegger administration from producing and distributing several video news releases that took on the appearance of news stories.

The releases, produced last year and early this year, were similar in format. The administration sent the releases to television stations throughout the state, including scripts to be read by news anchors. The videos contained interviews with administration officials and people who supposedly would have been affected by the laws, all of whom spoke favorably about the administration's proposed revisions. Parts of at least one of the videos appeared on several local television broadcasts, according to the administration.

One such release involved a plan -- since abandoned by the governor -- to impose a merit pay system for public school teachers. Another release involved a proposal to relax requirements that hourly workers be given lunch breaks. Among the people who appeared on the video were workers at a restaurant chain that had been among Schwarzenegger's campaign donors.

A third phony news story involved Schwarzenegger's effort to roll back a requirement that hospitals provide one nurse for every five patients.

Instead, the governor proposed that hospitals be permitted generally to operate under the old standard of one nurse for six patients.

In the mock news story, Kim Belshe, Schwarzenegger's Health and Human Services secretary, labeled claims that the administration's position endangered patients as scare tactics.

The administration's attempt to relax the staffing ratio angered the California Nurses Assn., which filed a separate suit to block the effort. The nurses went on to become one of the governor's most dogged foes during his failed special election campaign.

The nurses union won the richer staffing ratio from Schwarzenegger's Democratic predecessor, Gov. Gray Davis. Two days after voters turned down his package of initiatives last month, Schwarzenegger dropped his appeal of lower court rulings in which judges had blocked him from overturning the staffing ratio.

Meanwhile, upon learning of the governor's use of mock news stories, Democratic legislators led by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) protested and accused him of violating a state law barring the use of tax-funded propaganda.

"Free press is free press; government is government, and never the twain should meet," Romero said Thursday, adding that the releases "didn't pass the smell test."

Connelly stopped short of saying the videos violated the anti-propaganda law. But noting that staffing for the videos cost about $1,700, he said the administration violated a separate law, the California Administrative Procedure Act, by improperly spending public money "without clear legislative authorization."

The judge also said that by showcasing supportive comments about Schwarzenegger's proposals and not including criticism, the administration suggested that the state was predisposed to support the rule changes and did not "give good faith consideration to comments critical of the emergency or proposed regulations."

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