SACRAMENTO — Facing pressure from legislators and others, producer Rob Reiner said Friday he is taking a leave as chairman of a state commission that spent $23 million for ads touting the value of early education while he is promoting a statewide preschool initiative.
Reiner took the action in a letter addressed to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The leave takes effect immediately and will last until June 7, the day after voters decide the fate of Proposition 82, a Reiner-backed initiative to raise taxes on wealthy Californians to pay for preschool for all 4-year-olds.
Reiner has said that he and the First 5 California Children and Families Commission he has chaired since its inception in 1999 have done nothing improper but that he will step aside for the good of the commission.
His disclosure, however, came on a day when state Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine and Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), a candidate for state controller, urged Controller Steve Westly to audit the commission, citing concerns that the panel had used tax money to aid the preschool initiative. Tony Strickland, a Republican also running for controller, called for an audit earlier this week.
Westly, seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, declined the requests Friday.
"We conduct audits when the rules, regulations and standards dictate it, not when political pressure is applied," Westly spokesman Yusef K. Robb said. Robb added that California's Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces state campaign finance law, is "dealing with" the matter. An FPPC spokesman has declined to comment.
From November to January, the First 5 commission, created by a 1998 initiative that increased taxes on a pack of cigarettes by 50 cents, spent $23 million on television ads promoting preschool.
As the ads aired, Reiner launched a new initiative campaign, since qualified as Proposition 82 on the June ballot, to raise taxes by $2.4 billion a year to pay for preschool.
Proposition 10 of 1998 authorizes the use of tobacco tax money for ads, but the bulk is supposed to be spent on programs to aid early childhood healthcare and development.
"This appears to be far more than a coincidence and certainly not what the voters had in mind when they created this commission," Ackerman said in a letter to Westly. Ackerman opposes Proposition 82.
Frommer said he has not taken a position on the new initiative. But he said that if he were controller, he "absolutely" would audit the First 5 commission. Frommer also called on the Bureau of State Audits to commence a separate investigation.
"There is something about this that doesn't quite pass the smell test," Frommer said.
Reiner, the main proponent of Proposition 10 in 1998, removed himself from commission decisions last year related to the state-funded ad blitz. In his letter to Schwarzenegger, he said he was stepping down for the next five months "to avoid any political distractions that might impede First 5's important work."
Gov. Gray Davis appointed Reiner as chairman in 1999. Reiner's term has expired. As with some other holdover appointees from the Davis years, Schwarzenegger has not moved to replace him. A spokesman for the governor did not comment on Reiner's letter.
Reiner responded to Ackerman's missive by sending his own letter to Westly, saying the commission had done nothing improper and would cooperate "with any and all inquiries that you or your office should make, and will ask everyone associated with First 5 to do the same."