SAN FRANCISCO — Ask John Hagar about the state of the state's prisons and he gets right to the point.
California's correctional system is in crisis, he says, and the governor's election-year ambitions are bedeviling efforts to fix it.
Last week, Hagar laid out his case at an extraordinary hearing in a San Francisco courtroom. As stunned onlookers stifled gasps, Hagar, a special master overseeing prison reforms for a federal judge, fired a barrage of accusations at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his innermost circle, alleging perjury, the trading of favors, politically motivated intimidation and more.
As Hagar sees it, Schwarzenegger's bid for reelection has prompted his aides to improperly snuggle up to the prison guards union, a deep-pocket powerhouse in California politics. To sweeten relations, Hagar asserts, Schwarzenegger is granting the union clout over key decisions -- and at least temporarily shelving his agenda of prison reform.
Hagar's blunt charges at the hearing -- and in a written report released last month -- have vaulted the compact man with the gray crew cut into a rare moment of public visibility.
Typically, special masters labor in near anonymity. Appointed by judges as watchdogs in lawsuit settlements, they mediate disputes, monitor progress and periodically report on their findings for the court. Their only official power comes through judicial orders sometimes arising from their work.
In California, special masters have seldom reached the high-profile status that Los Angeles native Hagar, 59, achieved last week.
State Sen. Jackie Speier, who attended the hearing, said that in accusing Schwarzenegger of giving the union undue influence, Hagar demonstrated "more guts than any public official in California."
Speier, a longtime critic of the prison system and the union of guards who police it, also said that political fallout from Hagar's report -- coupled with other problems plaguing the prisons -- is creating a huge liability for the Republican governor. "I think it will be every bit as big as the energy crisis was for Gray Davis," said Speier, a Democrat from Hillsborough.
One of Hagar's biggest admirers is the man who named him special master in the case in 1997, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson. Henderson called Hagar a person of "great commitment and principle," and "a bulldog very good at dealing with tough people who are used to controlling their own turf."
The judge added that although comments from the governor's office suggest a belief that Hagar "is full of it," the special master has never been one to shortchange facts to sell an argument: "Anyone who has worked with John as I have," Henderson said, "will tell you that he is not one to shoot from the hip or the lip."
Not everyone is so kind.
Schwarzenegger Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy and Cabinet Secretary Fred Aguiar, the two aides Hagar singled out for his fiercest attack, have released sworn declarations disputing some of his primary allegations.
Both denied, for example, Hagar's charge that they consulted with union officials about the proposed appointment of a prison labor official the union disliked. The candidate was ultimately rejected, and the episode was cited by Hagar as one reason former Corrections Secretary Jeanne Woodford, who favored the candidate, quit in frustration, believing her authority was being undermined by politics.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Adam Mendelsohn said that statement and others in the special master's report were "absolutely false" and based on "undisclosed sources and rumors."
Mendelsohn said Kennedy, who also works part time as a campaign consultant for the governor, had reached out to the union -- and other groups -- because Schwarzenegger believes he must consult all "stakeholders" to make progress.
Leaders of the guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers' Assn., were Hagar's other main target. He said the union had never played a major role in any significant prison reform and told its top officials they bear some blame for the escalating problems of the 171,000-inmate system.
Union lobbyist Lance Corcoran said Hagar's "cloak and dagger" depiction of back-room deal-making between his group and the governor was "laughable."
"Unfortunately, I think Mr. Hagar has become very caught up in his belief that the CCPOA is to blame for all the ills in the Department of Corrections," Corcoran said. "I think he spoke too much and displayed a bias that is not healthy for the process."
In an interview midway through a visit to San Quentin last week, Hagar said he is unmoved by all the hue and cry. A veteran lawyer, he has represented inmates and local governments in suits over prison conditions for 25 years -- and he has taken on powerful interests before.