California legislature poor at handling scandals 

Given its record on other issues, such as the deficit-ridden budget, it’s not surprising that the California Legislature doesn’t handle scandal very well.

It almost always ignores internal scandal, including its members who run afoul of criminal laws. It’s difficult to say how outrageous a legislator’s conduct would have to be to earn censure. Mass murder, perhaps?

When scandals surface in the remainder of state government, usually via journalistic revelations, the Legislature’s response seemingly depends on politics of the moment, rather than consistent principle.

Sometimes it ignores them altogether, such as a savings and loan scandal in the 1980s and the incredibly complicated, multibillion-dollar rip-off of assets from an insurance company that was seized by former Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

And sometimes it attacks them with prosecutorial zeal, turning loose investigators, issuing subpoenas and conducting trial-like hearings. We saw the latter attitude toward two constitutional officers who were driven from office, former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, and in the scandal over a software contract in former Gov. Gray Davis’ administration.

As it happens, the Legislature faces two simmering state government scandals this month as it churns toward adjournment on Aug. 31.

The two, both brought to light in Sacramento Bee articles, deal with safety testing on the San Francisco Bay Bridge project and millions of dollars in hidden funds, plus apparently illicit vacation buyouts, in the Department of Parks and Recreation.

This week, Senate committees devoted a few hours of hearing time to each of the scandals, but they were lackluster, aimed, so it seemed, at showing a modicum of concern rather than drilling into core issues.

Basically, officials from the affected agencies showed up, gave legislators assurances that everything was under control and were dismissed after only mild questioning from senators.

The Parks and Recreation scandal is especially sensitive because it’s ammunition for foes of the tax increase that Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislators want voters to pass.

Ana Matosantos, Brown’s finance director, repeatedly answered questions by declaring that the administration officials acted as soon as they knew about the hidden funds and refusing to even specifically say when they knew.

The Senate could have put its much-vaunted and expensive investigative staff on the case, issued subpoenas to those who were fired and aggressively sought answers about who hid the money and why.

It didn’t. Instead, it agreed, in essence, to let the Department of Justice conduct an investigation, which probably won’t be completed before the Nov. 6 tax election.

Dan Walters covers state politics for the Sacramento Bee.

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