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California jobs go to those with connections

March 27, 2009|Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO — Unemployment in California may be at its highest since 1983, but there are jobs with the state Legislature for the well-connected.

Yolie Flores Aguilar, a longtime friend and political ally of some powerful California Democrats, last year supplemented her income as vice president of the Los Angeles school board with more than $32,000 as a consultant assigned to a state Senate committee that, during her tenure, did not meet or release any reports.

State Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood) was paid at least $27,900 by the state Senate last year for miscellaneous tasks as he was campaigning for his current job. And Californians pay Marisela Villar, daughter of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, $68,000 annually as a field representative for Democrats.

Lawmakers have broad powers to hire whomever they wish, and those they employ need not go through the Civil Service exam process that requires applicants to compete for jobs on merit. Some are paid as consultants, with vague responsibilities or assignments. Others have titles that bear little relationship to what they actually do.

At least a dozen political allies, relatives and friends of legislators, including political candidates in need of a salaried landing or launch pad between elections, were on the legislative roster last year at a cost of $754,000.

"It looks like nepotism," said Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "It's the kind of thing the public doesn't like: people using their power and influence to provide cushy jobs to friends and family."

Aguilar was given a $7,252-per-month salary for more than four months as a consultant to the Senate Select Committee on Urban Economies by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who has been an ally on school reform efforts in Los Angeles.

One lawmaker on the committee questioned the benefit to taxpayers.

"If we're not meeting, why do we need a consultant?" asked Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria). Maldonado, a member of the committee, said he did not recall working with Aguilar.

Aguilar, whose school board pay is $2,195 per month, had been consulting for Romero on education issues. Romero is a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction and recently took over as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

Aguilar "was there to advise me and prepare me for assuming the role of chair," Romero said.

Aguilar said the consulting job disappeared when Romero lost the post of Senate majority leader in December.

"That was one of the casualties," she said.

Aguilar said she preferred the consulting work to her former post as head of Los Angeles County Children's Planning Council, which she said took too much of her time away from school board business. But the school board post is considered part time, she said, and "unless you are independently wealthy, you have to have a job."

Wright, a former assemblyman, was not just well-connected when he took a consulting job with former state Senate Leader Don Perata. He later ran successfully for a seat in Perata's legislative house.

Wright said the consulting consumed considerable time and energy. He was called on to represent Perata in L.A. at community meetings, vet Southern Californians for state appointments and review proposals for the region's ports.

While on the public payroll, Wright also ran a business as a private consultant, with clients including Pacific Gas and Electric Corp. and Duke Power of Charlotte, N.C.

He said the state job was part time.

"The state got the use of my time and I learned a lot," he said.

Fabian Wesson is also well- connected, running for office and getting paid to be a legislative consultant.

She landed on the Assembly payroll a few years after her husband, Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson, a former Assembly speaker, was criticized for providing legislative consulting jobs to political allies.

Fabian Wesson was hired by former Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, a Los Angeles Democrat, as her husband was forced from the Assembly by term limits in 2004.

She is now running for the Los Angeles Assembly seat that Speaker Karen Bass holds until 2010.

Bass, who endorsed a Wesson competitor, dropped her from the Assembly staff this month, and Wesson became a consultant for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) instead, doing liaison work with the public.

Bass said she inherited a staff of consultants that included Wesson and Villar.

"Everybody's working. I don't believe in make-work," Bass said.

Wesson did not return multiple calls for comment. Nor did Villar, whose father, Villaraigosa, is a former Assembly speaker.

Villar was hired by one of her father's friends, then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, in 2006 to arrange community meetings and handle constituents' calls in Southern California.

She does similar work for Bass from a state office in Santa Ana.

Voice-mail messages left at that office over several days were not answered.

Gil Cedillo Jr., the son of state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), makes $80,900 as a district coordinator for state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello).

Barry Nestande, brother of Assemblyman Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert) and the son of former Assemblyman Bruce Nestande, is paid $104,000 annually as chief of staff for Sen. John Benoit (R-Palm Desert).

Robert Brulte, the brother of former Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte, works for the Senate radio broadcasting studio, making recordings of lawmakers' comments for distribution to radio stations. He touts a long career in the radio industry.

He got the job just before his brother left the Senate in 2004. But he denied any link between his $95,700-a-year state job and his brother's former position.

"It was coincidental," Brulte said, before adding "I'm sure he gave me a good recommendation."

--

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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