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Governor talks, and funds flow

Review of appearances and fundraising shows that those who benefit from his help often do favors for him too.

December 14, 2008|Michael Rothfeld | Rothfeld is a Times staff writer.

SACRAMENTO — When the owner of Staples Center had nearly completed a two-year project to generate power from the sun on the arena's roof, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up at a ceremony to help lay the final solar panel and heap praise on the Anschutz Entertainment Group for going green.

Schwarzenegger returned that same night in late October for a far different, less public event: a fundraiser thrown by the company that raked in half a million dollars for his political endeavors. Guests mingled with the governor and First Lady Maria Shriver over cocktails and dinner on a terrace at Anschutz's L.A. Live development, then watched the Lakers' season opener from luxury box seats.

Bearing star power wherever he goes, Schwarzenegger lends cachet and exposure to those seeking publicity for their events. A review of his appearances and his fundraising this year shows that those who benefited from his giant profile frequently helped the governor as well, often contributing tens of thousands of dollars or more to his campaigns and causes.

After promising during the 2003 recall to end the influence of money in California politics, Schwarzenegger campaigned this year to reform state government through Proposition 11, the successful initiative to change how legislative districts are drawn. Even his allies in that fight find it distasteful that the governor has become the most prolific fundraiser in state political history and solicited millions of dollars for the redistricting effort from corporate and special interests.

"That's the way the system works, and it troubles me," said Derek Cressman, Western regional director for Common Cause, who worked with Schwarzenegger on the initiative and has written a book critical of his fundraising. "The governor, like every other elected official in our state, pays more attention to those people who support him than those who don't. And those people who support him with big checks get noticed."

The timing of the donations can be striking. On Oct. 30, two days after Schwarzenegger did a publicity tour of an environmentally friendly plant built by Contessa Premium Foods, the company wrote a $15,000 check to support Proposition 11.

Schwarzenegger's presence can send a powerful message. The governor and his appointed president of the Public Utilities Commission, Michael Peevey, a former Southern California Edison executive, stood atop a roof in San Bernardino County with current company officials in March to announce the utility's $875-million plan, to be paid for by its customers, to place solar panels on industrial buildings throughout Southern California.

Edison has given $95,000 to support the governor this year.

"When it's complete, it will produce enough power for 162,000 homes, so that is really spectacular," Schwarzenegger said of the project. "It is electricity, by the way, that is produced without emitting any greenhouse gases; no transmission lines and no fossil fuel is needed for this."

That gave critics the impression that the project was destined for approval before it had been considered by the PUC, the state's regulatory body -- before which it is still pending -- even though other power producers said it might cost too much and give Edison monopolistic control over solar energy in the area. Schwarzenegger has pushed state programs encouraging more competition in development of clean energy, so his appearance was surprising to some.

"It seemed like an endorsement," said Sue Kately, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Assn., a trade group whose members wanted the chance to develop solar facilities at a lower cost. "The project wasn't even approved yet." The governor and Edison officials returned to the same site Dec. 1 to tout completion of an initial phase that was allowed by the PUC.

The Times identified more than 30 appearances by the governor with donors in 2008. Schwarzenegger's aides said those represent a fraction of 185 events he had attended as of early November. But most of the activities they cited were purely governmental, involving no private interests that typically make political contributions

Aaron McLear, the governor's spokesman, said there is no direct relationship between his fundraising and his public events, but there may be a natural synergy. He promotes companies whose activities coincide with his interests, such as clean energy and climate change, and the same people contribute money because they like his policies.

These events "benefit the public by highlighting what these companies are doing that is in line with the governor's vision," McLear said.

Often, the governor's appearances are orchestrated by longtime confidants. The Edison event was coordinated by California Strategies, an influential Sacramento consulting firm headed by Bob White. White is a former chief of staff for Gov. Pete Wilson, who assisted Schwarzenegger during the 2003 recall campaign.

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