SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez has appointed Los Angeles businessman William A. Burke to another term on the California Coastal Commission, a little more than a year after Burke voted as head of a state board to award Nunez's wife a $125,000 contract.
Burke, the politically powerful president of the Los Angeles Marathon, could also have his chairmanship of the South Coast Air Quality Management District governing board extended if pending legislation removes term limits that otherwise would force him from the post in January.
Co-authors of the legislation include lawmakers for whom Burke, husband of Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, has raised political contributions. One is Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), a former business partner of Burke's.
Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat, has been among the biggest beneficiaries of Burke's fundraising. He received $72,000 for his 2002 Assembly election campaign from Californians United, a political committee whose president at the time was Burke.
The two assists for Burke from Sacramento have raised eyebrows.
"It just smacks of cronyism," said Ned Wigglesworth of California Common Cause.
The appointment by Nunez "does raise the concern that there was some favorable treatment given to Burke," Wigglesworth said.
Nunez, who has been Assembly speaker since February 2004, said Burke's reappointment had nothing to do with the contract his wife received from AQMD.
The contract played "absolutely no role at all," Nunez said. "Her work was through a competitive process. It was not connected."
Nunez wife, Maria Robles, won the job over one other bidder. She had received a $49,000 contract from the air district's executive director in 2005.
Nunez said he reappointed Burke and William Kruer of La Jolla to the Coastal Commission on Wednesday because they were doing a good job.
"The politics of the Coastal Commission are never easy politics to navigate, and I figured both Kruer and Burke have a good relationship with the environmental community and they share my vision of protecting the pristine coastline," Nunez said.
But an assessment published by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation, showed that Burke voted what it characterized as a pro-environment position only 48% of the time last year on 35 significant measures.
Burke said he and Nunez had done nothing unethical. And the legislation that could extend his AQMD leadership is a recognition of the need for someone with experience to head the important panel, he added.
"I do have friends in Sacramento, but I have not tried to influence the legislation in any way," Burke said.
The 68-year-old Burke, a resident of Marina del Rey, was first appointed to the South Coast air board in 1993 by then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. He was reappointed by subsequent speakers, including Nunez in September 2005, and has served a total of eight years as chairman.
As chairman of the board, Burke does not receive a big salary -- from July 1, 2006, through June 30, 2007, he received $9,100 in per diem pay -- but he wields tremendous power over permits, regulatory rules and contracts.
Burke voted with eight of his colleagues on April 7, 2006, to award the $125,000 consulting contract to Robles to organize international conferences on asthma and port emissions control technologies.
The contract was approved without board discussion.
"She had to compete for it," Burke said. "I had nothing to do with that process."
On Wednesday, 16 months after the contract was awarded, Nunez reappointed Burke to the Coastal Commission for a term ending in 2011.
Burke received approximately $6,000 in per-meeting stipends for the Coastal Commission position during the last fiscal year. Burke said the commission needs members who are knowledgeable and who care about protecting California's coastline.
"I also feel its important to have diversity" on the panel, said Burke, who is African American.
On the air quality board, Burke's chairmanship is limited to two consecutive two-year terms. Twice before, Burke's allies, including Dymally, tried to pass laws extending the chairman's term, but both times the bills were dropped after generating opposition.
The latest attempt is SB 886 by Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino), with Assemblywoman Nell Soto (D-Pomona) and Dymally as co-authors. The bill has passed the Senate and been approved by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. The governor has not taken a public position on the measure.
Dymally and Soto have both received campaign contributions from Burke.
Californians United, which raised money from Indian gambling groups, cab companies and unions, contributed $63,000 to Dymally's Assembly campaign in 2002. Soto received $1,000.