Database Shows L.A. its “Worst Legislator”

But is it fair? And is it news?

San Jose Mercury News social services reporter Karen de Sa earned accolades this July for an investigative series which revealed that over a third of the bills passed through the California legislature in the two-year 2007-08 session were “sponsored” by outside organizations. Think the Sierra Club, the unions, the California Manufacturers Association, “big oil.” Leading a team of five, de Sa showed that Sacramento lobbyists actually write the bills that sometimes-hapless legislators introduce into the chamber and then funnel them through to the governor’s desk to be signed into law—or not. A second part to the series explained how term limits has helped facilitate the practice. Here’s how she explained the Sacramento sausage-making in her report:

A lobbyist has an idea to make life better—but only for his client. The lobbyist writes the bill, shops for a willing lawmaker to introduce it and lines up the support. The legislator? He has to do little more than show up and vote.

This is the path of the “sponsored bill,” a method of lawmaking little noticed outside California’s capital but long favored on the inside. In many states lobbyists influence legislators; in California, they have—quite baldly—taken center stage in lawmaking.

The series ran in all of Mercury News owner MediaNews Group’s California papers, and de Sa remembers reader reaction was “off the charts” and “across-the-board.” “It struck a chord with people who were frustrated with the way government works but don’t really understand it,” she says. “I even got invited to speak for the Tea Party!” Online, the story came with an impressive database in which curious policy-watchers could (and still can) search the record of each legislator to see how many sponsored bills they had introduced, and by whom the bills had been sponsored.

It was the perfect tool for local outlets after a story, and yesterday, Village Voice Media-owned L.A. Weekly hit stands with a feature headlined, “The Worst Legislator in California.” Someone had been rummaging in de Sa’s database and they’d found San Fernando state assemblyman Felipe Fuentes. Reporter David Futch writes:

The 39-year-old Democrat who represents Sylmar, Pacoima, Lakeview Terrace and Arleta in the California Assembly was listed as the “author” of 24 proposed bills in the 2007-08 legislative sessions. Yet despite all his bustle, Fuentes could easily win a nomination as the worst legislator in California — quite an achievement in a 120-member body with a 10 percent approval rating — because 10 of his laws were ghostwritten by special-interest groups.

But as de Sa begins work on a second “sponsored bill” series which will look at the 2009-10 session and expand the database, and the L.A. Weekly plans for more legislator exposés, there are grumblings in the Sacramento press corps that there’s no real news here. “This is an old story,” says Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who has worked in the capitol since 1975. “People come in from out of town, discover something, and they want to hype their story by saying that there is something the capitol press corps is not telling you.”

Futch’s L.A. Weekly story came about precisely because Stewart, the paper’s news editor, believed the capitol press corps was keeping “sponsored bills” to themselves, perhaps unintentionally. “I worked in Sacramento for several years and I saw a very isolated bunch of journalists who had totally missed the Gray Davis budget disaster; they’re constantly missing things,” she told me. A bit more than a week after de Sa’s series ran, Stewart sent the reporter an e-mail, the subject line of which read, “LA Weekly News editor and fan.” The e-mail mixed flattery, appreciation, and a touch of “embarrassing but honest praise”:

In my mind’s eye, you are like Diana, the godddess of the hunt. You have true cojones. Everybody else covering Sacramento for the past decade was just a bit asleep, almost all of the time. I believe the media is playing a major role in the slowly decaying democratic system in Sacramento.

Stewart then asked if de Sa would share some raw data with her, and where the Weekly could find the best information on the Mercury News site for their story on Fuentes, who was singled out in de Sa’s report. “We do not have the staff to undertake our own number-crunching and database searching,” wrote Stewart. “We do have the staff to take the findings about which electeds are serving as fronts for special interests, and do some great stories on it, however.” When I spoke to Stewart yesterday from L.A., she said, “I encourage every newspaper in California to look at this database the same way.”

The focus of Futch’s story is a “a stinker of a law known as Assembly Bill 2531, which was ghostwritten by Los Angeles’ powerful Community Redevelopment Agency.” As Futch describes the Fuentes-backed bill:

See, the CRA is a semi-autonomous city department that siphons off a portion of property taxes and uses those monies to redevelop “blighted” city neighborhoods. It does that by giving loans to owners — usually development companies who rehabilitate property or tear down existing buildings to erect apartment complexes, hotels or office towers.

It sounds pretty, but AB 2531 also had the potential to displace thousands of minority and poor L.A. residents—and wipe out huge swaths of nonblighted Los Angeles—through a land grab disguised as redevelopment.

The CRA has the power to declare eminent domain over blighted areas. According to the original wording of AB 2531 that Fuentes put his name on, “blight” would be expanded to a radical new definition: those unhealthy neighborhoods with “high incidences of obesity, diabetes and other diseases which are affected by poor access to fresh food” or places where there are “high incidences of asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases which are affected by air pollution or the presence of contaminated properties,” and, lastly, areas “that suffer from a lack of parks and open space.”

The argument goes that Fuentes was supporting a bill that would redefine blight in a way that would give the CRA power to redevelop minority areas. Futch was surprised when Fuentes actually agreed to talk for the story, a decision that led to some rather interesting exchanges:

“There’s nothing wrong with generating ideas from different sources,” he says. “I’m not an attorney and I’m not the best writer and I depend on the city people,” meaning the Los Angeles city officials and civil bureaucrats who are actually writing the bills on which Fuentes puts his name. “There isn’t a monopoly on good ideas. I’ll take them from anyone.”

Futch’s report is pretty explicit about his intention to do work the Sacramento press corps has for the most part failed to do. In the story itself, Futch writes, “Legislators who front for the ghostwriters pass themselves off as high-achieving lawmakers—an image that’s allowed to stand by the mostly silent Sacramento press corps.” He quotes de Sa to make the point:

When de Sa started working on her newspaper’s online database, which any member of the public can use to look up the most compromised of the state’s legislators, Capitol workers—including reporters—“would say, ‘Sponsored bills? Well, duh. It’s the way things are done,’” de Sa says. “I’ve never worked in the Capitol. But people in the Capitol who work there and who cover the Capitol have become far too jaded and accustomed to lobbyists pushing bills. Some of the [legislative] staff does work for lobbyists and the lobbyists become de facto legislators. [Legislative staff and the media] have accepted as routine what we as outsiders would think is a shockingly unethical way of doing business.”

The Sacramento Bee’s Walters takes issue with the Mercury News and L.A. Weekly reports on two fronts. Firstly, he says, the sponsorship process is transparent, with the sponsor of the bill noted on a document known as the bill analysis. “Are legislators supposed to dream bills up out of their own head?” asks Walters. “It’s the same in Congress and in every legislative body in the country. Sometimes the lobbyist’s intention is legitimate and sometimes it’s nefarious. Figuring out which is which is the job of the press corps.”

Secondly, Walters, who writes regularly about redevelopment and includes the names of bill sponsors in his reporting—“Newspapers always say who the sponsor is; it’s boilerplate basically”—says that the L.A. Weekly actually missed the more public-serving story in choosing to go after Fuentes as an individual. “The story is that this development agency wanted to change the nature of ‘blight’ in Los Angeles for some specific reason,” Walters told me over the phone from Sacramento. “The story was to find out the specific reason—usually a shopping center, factory, sports arena. The fact that this run-of-the-mill journeyman assemblyman carried the thing is really beside the point. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else from L.A. because the CRA wanted somebody to bring this bill. The real story is why.”

But that argument seems to hinge on the assumption that “sponsored bills” are something people know about—that the fact of their sponsorship is not news. Jill Stewart says “the public has no idea” about sponsored bills. De Sa agrees, adding that it is also not widely known just how involved sponsors have become in legislation. “We found enough of a pattern where the sponsor is not just bringing an idea to the to the legislator’s office but actually taking on the role of what we would assume is a legislative staffer,” says de Sa. “They produce fact sheets, write speeches for the quote-unquote author or legislator to deliver at committee hearings.”

The Sacramento Bee’s other Dan—columnist Dan Morain—remembers the “What else is new?” reaction to de Sa’s series. But he did not share it. “I don’t view it as a scandal,” he says of the “sponsored bills” stories. “I view it as really interesting expository journalism. There ought to be more of it.” When I ask if sponsored bills are something Californians didn’t already know, he says: “It’s common knowledge among about a thousand people out of the thirty-seven million who live in California that bills are sponsored. If you cover Sacramento, if you work in the capitol, you know about sponsored bills. The vast majority of people have no clue that bills are written by lobbyists.”

The debate echoes the questions surrounding the release of the WikiLeaks war logs: just because the information was already available in some capacity, does that mean new reporting which provides detail and context is of little value? “It’s real easy to become jaded and take the opinion that there is no news story, that it’s old hat,” says Morain. “Maybe I’m naïve or have blinders on but I don’t believe that’s true. What those of us know who work around legislators or Congress or whatever is not what most voters know. And we ought to tell them.”

With de Sa’s second series in the works and Jill Stewart’s plans to mine the database for more sensational stories, people are soon likely to know more. De Sa offered this hint of what we can expect from her new reporting on just how closely involved lobbyists have become with drafting bills and the speeches supporting them. “Working on this second piece, I am finding out that a lot of legislators misspeak in hearings and misrepresent their bills,” says de Sa. “‘Oh shit, is that what it says?’ They can’t even defend their first drafts. They need to make amendments to their own bill.” We look forward to that story, and the stories that come out of it.

*Correction: This post originally reported that Assembly Bill 2531 was mentioned in Karen de Sa’s original series. It was not.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,