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Inside the California Assembly chamber on the night of June 1, the presiding officer urged lawmakers to recognize former members in their midst, “the honorable Henry Perea and Felipe Fuentes.”

In a familiar Capitol ritual, the former assemblymen waved from the balcony as applause rang out from their one-time colleagues.

But the two weren’t just retired lawmakers—they were now lobbyists being paid by oil companies to kill a bill that would soon meet its fate on the Assembly floor below.

That bill, by Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, would have forced industry to reduce air pollution that comes from their plants. Garcia knew the lobbyists in the balcony were pals of many of her Assembly colleagues. She knew oil and other industries were working hard to defeat her. And she knew her bill was in danger.

A million people in her industrial Los Angeles neighborhood “have been treated like a wasteland,” Garcia said in frustration, wiping tears from her eyes. Then she cast a glance toward the balcony. “Clean air is a big deal for a lot of Californians. You have a choice: Do we all matter?”

Her bill fell six votes short, as moderate Democrats joined Republicans to quash it. The moment marked a win for oil—and revolving-door politics.

Today, Garcia cites the lobbyists’ special relationships with current legislators as among the factors to blame for her bill’s demise.

“When you have a former member on the floor at the same time they are working for or against the bill,” she said, “you open the opportunity to have access in a way lobbyists normally would not have.”

Sacramento is full of termed-out or retired lawmakers who make second careers as lobbyists, strolling through a “revolving door” between government and the private sector. Current law prohibits ex-legislators from directly lobbying their former colleagues for one year after they leave the Legislature, and a measure on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would slightly strengthen that by barring legislators who quit mid-term from lobbying during the remainder of that two-year-session, plus another year.

Still, the oil industry’s strategy this year was striking. After failing last year to prevent a new law requiring massive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, oil came back this year lobbying hard. Democrats held a supermajority in the Legislature, but were divided over how to redesign the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program, which forces businesses to reduce emissions or pay for permits to pollute.

The oil industry’s goal: to shape the next phase of cap and trade through 2030. And it had hired four former lawmakers—all Democrats—to advocate on its behalf.

Each hailed from predominantly working-class, Latino districts and joined an influential “mod squad” of moderates during their legislative tenures, which covered various periods between 2002 and 2015. Two are from Kern County, the biggest oil producer in California. And three quit their elective office mid-term to work for industry.

All four declined interviews for this article, as did their employers. Three were registered lobbyists during the peak of cap and trade negotiations this year:

Henry Perea, the son of a Fresno City Council member and grandson of Mexican immigrants, made his mark in the Assembly as the former leader of its mod caucus before quitting mid-term, initially to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. Now he lobbies for the Western States Petroleum Association.

Felipe Fuentes, raised in the San Fernando Valley, worked as a legislator to secure tax credits to keep filmmakers in the state, then was named to the Los Angeles Times 2016 “naughty” list for bailing on his Los Angeles City Council seat to become a lobbyist. His firm’s clients include an oil production company.

Michael Rubio, who worked his way up in Kern County politics, abruptly quit the state Senate in 2013 to work for Chevron, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

• A fourth is not a registered lobbyist, but manages government affairs for a refinery company: Nicole Parra, whose father was a Kern County supervisor, won election to the Assembly at age 32 and also became a mod caucus leader, known for sometimes endorsing Republicans.

“The industry showed incredible smarts by going out and hiring these people. Nationally, the oil industry is very Republican,” said David Townsend, a Democratic political consultant who knows all four through his work running a fundraising committee that helps elect business-friendly Democrats.

“Their knowledge base is enormous. Their relationships are broad-based and deep. If I were in trouble, they are some of the ones I’d hire,” Townsend said.

Oil companies have a long history of fighting against the aggressive climate policies backed by many California Democrats. This year, though, instead of fighting against cap and trade, oil teamed with other business interests to lobby to make cap and trade more industry-friendly. In the final deal that lawmakers approved on a bipartisan vote in July, oil won a new law forbidding local air-quality districts from enacting emissions restrictions tighter than the state’s—as well as a potential perk worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Leading environmental groups supported the bill to extend cap and trade for another decade, but other environmentalists wound up opposing it for being too easy on polluters.

“This easy crossing from legislator to advocate for the industry has happened before, but it seems to have been happening recently in greater bulk. So that, to me, is kind of distressing,” said Kathryn Phillips, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, which opposed the cap-and-trade plan. “These are people who have been friends with the people they are going to lobby.”

Many aspects of those relationships play out in ways the public never sees—through text messages and phone calls, or at private get-togethers. Weeks before lawmakers voted on the final cap-and-trade bills, Senate leader Kevin de León dined with Perea and Rubio at an intimate Sacramento restaurant known for $44 steaks.

De León, a Los Angeles Democrat who has carried many clean-energy bills, said former lawmakers didn’t get any special treatment from him.

“I sit down with everybody across the spectrum. That’s my job as the leader of the Senate,” he said. “I have to sit down with all perspectives, whether it’s oil, whether it’s clean energy, whether it is labor unions, whether it’s businesses.”

After Perea became a lobbyist, he met with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to talk about cap and trade, and held additional meetings with the speaker’s staff, Rendon acknowledged. But the speaker rejected the idea that former lawmakers were especially influential in negotiating the next phase of California’s landmark climate policy.

“On an issue like cap and trade, where members arrive with a certain set of values and with information already, I am inclined to think that this is less impactful,” Rendon said.

On the other hand, former lawmakers—especially those who served most recently—can bring unique insider know-how to any lobbying effort. They understand caucus dynamics, know how to tailor persuasive messages to particular legislators, and enjoy unusual access to public officials.

Signs of that were on display throughout the year in the bustling Capitol. In April, Parra participated in a lunchtime discussion with legislative staffers about professional advancement for women of color, joined by a legislator, a lawmaker’s chief of staff and an aide to the governor who works on environmental issues. And in September, as lawmakers began a long night voting on dozens of bills, Perea strolled down a Capitol hallway packed with lobbyists and slipped into the back door of the Assembly chamber—right past a sign labeling the room restricted to “members and staff only.”

Well-connected environmental advocates also roam the halls. Last year, for example, the Assembly honored former legislator Christine Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat who now runs a group that works to expand use of electric vehicles.

When politicians leave office, they frequently take a job developing a lobbying strategy—but not directly lobbying. Rubio did that when he quit the Legislature in 2013 to work for Chevron, as did Perea when he resigned in 2015 to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. But as the cap-and-trade negotiations heated up this year, both officially registered as lobbyists—a sign that they anticipated having a lot more direct contact with lawmakers. Perea left the pharmaceutical group to join the Western States Petroleum Association as a registered lobbyist in May. The next month, Rubio registered as a lobbyist for Chevron. In September, he filed paperwork with the Secretary of State ending his registration as a lobbyist. (Both men scored spots this year on a popular list of the 100 most influential players around the Capitol.)

Fuentes was elected to the Los Angeles City Council after he was termed out of the Assembly in 2012. He quit the City Council last year to become a lobbyist with a firm called the Apex Group, whose many clients include Aera Energy—a firm that drills for oil in the San Joaquin Valley.

Parra, after being out of elected office for eight years, was hired by Tesoro (now Andeavor) in November as a manager of state government affairs.

No one has complained to California’s political watchdog that the former lawmakers broke any ethics rules in their advocacy work this year. The assemblyman carrying the bill to lengthen the time lawmakers are banned from lobbying said it’s not inspired by any of the Legislature’s recent departures.

Still, even if legal, the idea that personal relationships may influence statewide policy can be disconcerting, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

“If we think about what we’re worried about when it comes to any lobbyist, it’s the idea that our lawmakers are making decisions based on what hired guns are asking them to do as opposed to what’s good public policy,” Levinson said. “Lobbyists have an outsized influence on lawmakers, and that is exponentially increased when that lobbyist is a former lawmaker.”

Even if former lawmakers held office at different times than today’s legislators, they may be connected through other political circles. That was the case for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, whose time in the lower house coincided with Perea but not the other three. She knew them, though, through California’s larger network of Latino Democrats.

Gonzalez Fletcher said she never felt pressured by the former legislators as the cap-and-trade negotiations advanced—perhaps because she declared her support for the bill early. Still, she saw them around the Capitol or ran into them while out for after-work drinks.

“There was a lot of checking in: ‘Where are people? Where do you think things will land?’ It felt more like information-gathering in my brief discussions with former members,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “I didn’t feel a lot of hard lobbying going on.”

At a time when many lawmakers worry that Sacramento’s lobbying corps isn’t as diverse as either the state or the Legislature (Latinos make up 39 percent of Californians and 23 percent of state legislators), the oil industry has been represented by black and Latino lobbyists in the Capitol for several years. Its move to bring on the four Latino former lawmakers reflects a larger economic shift in California.

“It’s not because they are Latino,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant with expertise in Latino politics. “It’s because they represented districts that are poor and working-class. There just happens to be a very strong relationship between race and class in California.”

Madrid said working-class communities respond to industry arguments about the cost of environmental regulation—either as consumers who will see the cost of gas increase, or as workers who want to keep blue collar jobs in their regions. With Republicans divided over cap and trade, and lacking much clout in the Capitol, it was logical for oil to bring on some prominent Democrats.

“You’re starting to see a transformation of what has traditionally been a right-left, red-blue, Republican-Democrat divide,” he said. “There is a realignment occurring.”

Another indication emerged five days before lawmakers voted on the cap-and-trade extension. The California Business Roundtable, a group of 30 companies including Chevron and Valero, enlisted a new lobbyist: Richie Ross, former bare-knuckles chief of staff to one of the most powerful Democratic Assembly speakers in state history, Willie Brown.

Today, Ross is unusual among Sacramento lobbyists because he is also a political consultant whose clients include 10 Democratic legislators—giving him financial connections both to the groups that pay him to lobby, and the politicians who pay him for campaign advice.

He said he provided advice to the Roundtable and did not lobby his political clients in the Legislature: “They had me register (as a lobbyist) because at that point, everyone was uncertain as to whether they would need me to lobby.”

The Roundtable’s president, Rob Lapsley, is a longtime Republican. But he said business groups knew that when it came to cap and trade, they needed Democrats involved to get the plan they wanted from a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“Richie is a smart, strategic advisor with long-term relationships. We found that of great value,” Lapsley said. “He goes back a long way. And he was very helpful in getting additional insights.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

After a man held a knife to her throat, forced her into her car and repeatedly raped her, Helena Lazaro underwent a painful and humiliating medical forensic examination.

The 17-year-old wanted her attacker caught.

She never imagined the evidence collected in what is known as a rape kit would sit untouched for years by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. By the time she finally discovered the identity of her attacker, prosecutors couldn’t charge him with the rape—because the statute of limitations had expired in California.

“I think about that 17-year-old girl, the 25-year-old girl, the 30-year-old woman—all the versions of myself who have suffered,” Lazaro says. “That suffering could have ended much sooner.”

Victims’ rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain untested at police departments and crime-lab storage facilities nationwide. Thus far, a partial inventory of California by the End the Backlog Initiative has identified some 9,000 untested kits. But the precise number remains a mystery, because most states, including California, don’t inventory rape kits, and rape survivors sometimes struggle to get information about their own cases.

Law enforcement might opt not to submit kits for DNA and other analysis for any number of reasons—the case may be solved or cleared without the need for test results, or officers may regard it as a low priority. But another reason so many kits gather dust is financial: Processing costs an estimated $500 to $1,500 per kit, sometimes more.

Legislative efforts to count and clear the rape-kit backlog, to track the kits and to mandate all new kits be tested have failed over the years in California, with the powerful law-enforcement lobby citing the burden on labor and local police budgets. This year appears to be no different: Some legislation that would reform rape kit collection has been watered down. Other bills await approval from lawmakers charged with weeding through bills that carry a price tag, who often reject popular measures because of their cost.

The responsibility for submitting rape kits for testing largely falls to local police departments and county sheriff’s offices. But a growing number of states have gotten involved—reacting to a public outcry and to evidence that testing rape kits puts serial rapists behind bars. In recent years, California has “encouraged” law enforcement to submit kits within a certain time frame and legalized a victims’ bill of rights. But unlike many other states, California has stopped short of mandating testing or even paying to calculate the depth of the backlog.

One legislator has even resorted to a novel approach to crime-solving: A bill would ask California taxpayers to donate directly to the rape-kit backlog fund when filing their state income tax returns.

“It takes significant resources and political will, getting leaders to engage in this problem and say it’s a priority and (that they) want to fix it,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national nonprofit that works on sexual assault.

Tracking these kits, Knecht argues, is one way the public can hold law enforcement accountable for failures to prioritize sexual assaults as violent crimes, blaming the victim or only testing rape kits if a stranger committed the assault. Those cultural, subjective circumstances are the reason she and other advocates believe every rape kit ought to be tested—to end the discretion, and some say discrimination, involved in rape-kit testing.

“I think the injustice of this situation is obvious but bears some repeating,” said Assemblyman David Chiu during testimony before a Senate committee in June. “When kits are untested, survivors do not get justice.”

Chiu, D-San Francisco, authored AB 41, which would require local law-enforcement agencies to log all future rape kits into a California Department of Justice database—although the bill does not require the kits to be tested. It’s a small step toward the eventual goal of testing all rape kits, but even so, simply tracking new kits has garnered opposition from the California State Sheriffs’ Association, which argues the reporting requirement would divert limited resources from critical services.

“If agencies report this information, there will be a database about who has untested kits and why they are untested,” said Cory Salzillo, legislative director of the sheriffs’ association. “That doesn’t necessarily translate into convictions.”

Salzillo also challenges the premise that every rape kit should be tested, citing cases in which a person who committed a rape admitted to it; both the victim and the perpetrator agree a sexual encounter took place; or if a victim has recanted. However, it’s hard to know what percentage of untested kits stem from solved cases in California, because law enforcement isn’t required to report the information.

Lazaro still doesn’t know why the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department didn’t submit her test for analysis or why her case remained unsolved for so long. She spent her final year of high school terrified of her unknown attacker, who had threatened to kill her and her family if she ever reported the attack. When authorities did send Lazaro’s evidence kit for testing in 2003—seven years later—they didn’t tell her they had found a match. Her case never moved forward.

She didn’t learn the name of that match until 2009, after the sheriff’s department responded to an inquiry from a local rape-crisis agency. Lazaro said she was told that the results had never made it from the lab to the sheriff’s department, and received an apology. But by then, California’s 10-year statute of limitations on rape had expired. (Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that removes the statute of limitations on new sex crimes.)

Capt. Carlos Marquez from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department declined to comment on the case, saying he was about to meet with Lazaro.

At first, Lazaro was relieved when she finally learned that the man authorities had identified through testing as her rapist—a long-haul truck driver from Ohio—was in prison for sexually assaulting his wife: That meant Lazaro was safe. She believed her case had just slipped through the cracks. But then she learned about the hundreds of thousands of women nationwide whose rape kits have never been tested.

“I hate that I have to argue that it should be important enough to say, ‘We need to prevent women from being raped,’” Lazaro said. “We track information about so many other crimes. Why is this an exception?”

Lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee have put Chiu’s bill on the suspense file, meaning it has a cost to the state and will be heard later this summer. Similar bills have died twice before in appropriations committees.

A recent Senate analysis concluded that Chiu’s rape-kit reporting bill presents a “potentially significant workload cost of more than $100,000 a year to local law-enforcement agencies statewide,” although that cost would likely be reimbursed by the state. Related legislation that would ban the destruction of a rape kit in an unsolved case for 20 years could cost the state $3 million for a new storage facility, along with $150,000 in ongoing costs. That bill, AB 1312 by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher of San Diego, initially contained a provision that would have mandated the submission and testing of all newly collected rape kits. But that was it stripped from the bill because of its cost.

“Funding shouldn’t even be a question,” said Harriet Salarno, chair of Crime Victims United Charitable Foundation, whose daughter was murdered; she has been working with victims for the last 37 years. “Public safety is a constitutional right. Public safety is a priority. They are using funding as an excuse.”

Critics say the cost of testing a rape kit is far outweighed by the cost of crimes prevented. In 2016, the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio released a study that showed Cuyahoga County, Ohio, had saved $48.2 million by averting future sexual assaults after testing its 4,347 unsubmitted rape kits. A report by the U.S. Justice Department noted that Detroit alone had identified more than 400 serial rapists through the testing of backlogged kits.

A growing number of states have taken steps to address the backlog. Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana and Minnesota now require law enforcement to inventory untested rape kits. Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan require all rape kits be tested within certain timeframes. California joins Kentucky, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Utah with laws that give survivors the right to know the status of their rape kit, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation, which runs the End the Backlog campaign.

Congress has also stepped in. Since 2015, federal lawmakers have approved $131 million for the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, and federal agencies have awarded millions in other grant dollars to help law enforcement and crime labs with their backlogs. The California Department of Justice, Orange County, the Riverside Police Department, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office have all benefited from funding, according to the Department of Justice.

Still, lawmakers have been reluctant to mandate that law enforcement test all future rape kits, eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits or even do a statewide count to determine the backlog that exists.

Democratic Assemblyman Evan Low, from the Silicon Valley city of Campbell, said that’s why he put forward AB 280—to find an alternative way to raise funds to eliminate the rape kit backlog. His bill would add a check-off box to personal income-tax forms that allows taxpayers to donate directly to the Rape Kit Backlog Voluntary Tax Contribution Fund. If approved by lawmakers and signed into law, California taxpayers would have to donate at least $250,000 a year for the box to stay on the form.

The idea, however, hasn’t been well-received among advocates for sexual-assault victims, who commend Low’s intent, but argue the funding should come from law-enforcement budgets.

“This is the criminal-justice system. Laws have been broken, and you can’t prosecute without criminal evidence,” says Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, who worked with Los Angeles area public officials after Human Rights Watch in 2009 revealed more than 12,500 untested rape kits in the county.

“I don’t know of any other crime where you go to the public,” she added.

Low is the first to admit that his bill is “not the ideal nor perfect solution” to address the backlog. “I am in agreement that we, as a state and public jurisdictions, should adequately fund this for justice to be obtained,” Low says. “But, that’s not the reality.”

Lazaro, whose attacker was never charged with her rape, wants lawmakers to think about survivors like herself when these bills come before them. She is still traumatized by what happened to her at the car wash just four blocks from her home in Downey. And she wonders how her life might have been different had law enforcement immediately submitted her rape kit for testing.

“It changed my life,” Lazaro said. “And I’m just now starting to come to terms with how much of my life was stolen.”

Samantha Young is a contributor to CALmatters.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics