Sunday, April 8, 2012

High-Speed Rail in California: Crony politics and political pork

Curt Pringle has been the Mayor of Anaheim. He has also been the Chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Now he's a lobbyist who won't admit he's a lobbyist.  His political career is a text-book quality object lesson. 

I present this two part article here because Pringle is merely the tip of a vast iceberg of political behavior in California, and one reason the high-speed rail project continues to be the epitome of mis-management, double-talk and scamming is that the behaviors of Pringle and his minions pervade Sacramento politics and the other regional and local governments up and down this state.

All these guys know one another.  They are all, more or less, interested in the same things, political power and money.  What has been going on with high-speed rail in California has been exactly about this, politics and money.  It has not been about serving the public, providing expanded transit commuter services, or creating solutions to all the problems claimed by the rail authority for it train as the antidote.

We are not being represented by our politicians at either the local, regional or state levels. Instead, we are being had.

These two articles are long, but could easily be the basis of a movie about political corruption in California.


Curt Pringle's Dance With California's Lobbying Law
By ADAM ELMAHREK | Posted: Sunday, April 1, 2012 10:00 pm
First of Two Parts.

Last July, seven months after stepping down as a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority board, Curt Pringle sent an email to Darrell Johnson, the agency's deputy CEO.

“I am doing a little work with ATN — Anaheim Transportation Network,” Pringle wrote. “I would like to sit down with you and Diana Kotler, the ATN Executive Director, to discuss what service areas out there today and in the future there might be for ATN to be engaged with.”

It was a dicey proposition. The state's revolving door law made it illegal for Pringle to lobby his old colleague on behalf of a client until a year after Pringle left the OCTA. But Pringle knew the law, and he exercised caution in crafting the email by including a carefully worded disclaimer.

“I am very aware of the restrictions I have and am unable to 'advocate' to you regarding any 'administrative or legislative action.' Therefore, I certainly wouldn’t. But I think it might be good to hear where OCTA is on station link services, GO Local programs and other areas that ATN should be aware of.”

A few months after Pringle, Johnson and Kotler met for breakfast, ATN — a small transit agency that provides transportation for Anaheim's resort district — submitted a proposal to develop an OCTA alternative transit program known as rideshare. The transportation network was awarded an $185,000 contract, and Pringle's public affairs firm — Curt Pringle and Associates — received a $37,000 subcontract.

The situation raises red flags with Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and author of the state's conflict of interest code. “The way I was reading it [the email] is he wanted to enter into a contract with them [OCTA],” Stern said.

If that was the case, then Pringle has violated the state's revolving door law, Stern said. But the law is narrow, Stern cautioned, and Pringle would have violated it only if he had lobbied Johnson for a specific contract.
“It raises questions about what happened at the meeting and the contract in question,” Stern said.

Regardless of whether Pringle broke the letter of the law, his dealings with Johnson and Kotler are indicative of how one of Orange County's most powerful players, who as recently as 2010 was simultaneously a board member at OCTA, mayor of Anaheim and chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, has remained very much in the thick of the public's business even after officially leaving public office.

Did He or Didn't He?

While the purpose of Pringle's presence at the breakfast meeting clearly was to represent ATN's interests, Pringle, Kotler and Johnson all say that Pringle didn't break the law because he didn't actually talk about the contract during the meeting.

“I think it's important that transportation agencies — that each knew what they were doing,” Pringle said. “I have never lobbied for a contract at OCTA.”

Johnson also denies that Pringle lobbied during the meeting. The three met to talk about “two specific things,” he said, including an OCTA transit system study and the Go Local program, a plan to link city transit to OCTA's Metrolink rail line.

And Johnson said he had no idea OCTA would be sending out a request for proposals for rideshare consulting services just two months after the meeting.

The Anaheim Transportation Network is relatively new, he said, and the meeting was a chance to learn about ATN. “Suggesting any type of meeting would have any kind of influence on a contract with ATN is just completely false,” Johnson said. “You can't connect the dots, there's nothing to connect.”

Kotler also described the meeting as just an introduction. “We were discussing very broadly how the two agencies could work together,” Kotler said.

However, Kotler did acknowledge that her agency hired Pringle to represent its interests. “I wouldn't call it [lobbying],” Kotler said. “That is the board's choice on how to best ensure we're … let's just call it best represented.”

ATN hired Pringle's firm last May, contract documents show, and his duties make it clear he is the organization's lobbyist. “We will represent the interests of the ATN before regulatory and policy bodies when appropriate,” the contract reads. The firm is also to contact “key decision makers to gain support for the ATN's short and long term goals.”

The contract also says that special attention would be paid to “the elected leaders and staff in the City of Anaheim.”

However, the contract also contains a disclaimer that places an asterisk on those promises, and, in the case of Anaheim, seems to reverse them.

“You should be aware that our company policy prevents members of our firm from communicating in an attempt to influence legislative or administrative action on behalf of any client with the city of Anaheim and the Orange County Transportation Authority until December 8, 2011,” the contract reads.

“The contract was entered into with the full understanding of revolving door restrictions,” Pringle said.

The Cooling-Off Period

The intent of the 2005 law, according to a legislative analysis, is to "address situations whereby former elected officers and other officials return to represent clients who have business before or are seeking to influence policy decisions made by their former agencies."

The law forbids lobbying of former colleagues for 12 months after leaving office. But opinions are divided on whether this “cooling-off period” should be required.

“Quite frankly, I don't think the one-year rule should apply,” said pollster and Republican insider Adam Probolsky.

Probolsky argues that defining a lobbyist can be difficult, and he says that former elected officials have the First Amendment right to free speech.

“I'm not saying it's impossible. I'm just saying the consequence of preventing people who were once in government I think is dangerous and probably illegal,” Probolsky said. “There's such a thing as political speech — and it's the highest form of speech.”

State Senator Lou Correa (D- Santa Ana) feels differently. Correa introduced legislation last year that expanded the revolving door law to include appointed members to local governing boards.

“You exercise and commanded a certain level of power, therefore in order to not have undue influence in that organization you should stay away for a year,” Correa said. “As a citizen of this country, I still believe in democracy and the right of citizens [to] one vote [per] person. I believe all of us should have equal access to government.”

Tomorrow: Pringle remains “master” of his universe.
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Pringle: Still Master of His Universe
By ADAM ELMAHREK | Posted: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 7:00 am
Second of two parts. 

On an evening last June, Orange County Transportation Authority CEO Will Kempton hosted a small party at his home in Dove Canyon, a wealthy enclave in Rancho Santa Margarita.

The list of invitees included some of the most influential players in Orange County politics: former OCTA board member Peter Buffa, Orange County Business Council Executive Director Lucy Dunn, Disneyland Government Relations Director Carrie Nocella and Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray.

Also invited was high-profile political figure Curt Pringle.

“We will drink many bottles of excellent wine,” Kempton said in his invitation.

The day after the party, Murray emailed the invited guests, whom she described as “good, treasured friends,” and as the “masters of the universe.”

“Good to know we all still have a joyful, mischievous side!!” Murray wrote.

Emails, which were obtained by Voice of OC from OCTA under the California Public Records Act, not only show the conviviality of the county's power elite, but also that Pringle has remained very much in the mix despite his official departure from public life.

Pringle has arguably been Orange County's most powerful public figure of the past decade. As of 2010, he simultaneously served as mayor of Anaheim, the county's largest and most influential city; on the board of OCTA, the county's multi-billion dollar transportation agency; and as chairman of the state's High-Speed Rail Authority, which is attempting to build a bullet train network.

And though he relinquished two of those titles more than a year ago and stepped down as high-speed rail chairman last July, emails and interviews show that he continues to use them to his advantage.

Pringle's fingerprints have appeared on deals ranging from transportation contracts to a controversial hotel subsidy. The records reveal Pringle's penchant for walking right to, perhaps even over, the line drawn by the state's revolving door law, which governs how a former elected official may interact with the public agencies for which he or she served.

As Voice of OC reported Monday, at least one meeting and contract award to a Pringle client has a good-government expert questioning whether Pringle broke the law, which specifically bars elected officials from lobbying their old colleagues for 12 months after they've left office.

Last July, seven months after Pringle left OCTA, he sat down for a breakfast meeting with OCTA Deputy CEO Darrell Johnson and the top executive at the Anaheim Transportation Network, a small transit agency — and Pringle client — that provides public transportation to Anaheim's resort district.

By January, OCTA awarded the transportation network a $185,000 contract to develop an OCTA program known as rideshare, a planned outreach drive to encourage the public to reduce its carbon footprint by biking, walking, carpooling or taking public transit to work. Two subcontractors, including Curt Pringle and Associates, which is to receive $37,000 under the contract, are carrying out the vast majority of the work.

Pringle, Johnson and ATN Executive Director Diana Kotler insist that Pringle did not break the law because seeking that contract was never specifically discussed during the meeting.

Beyond the rideshare contract, emails show just how closely involved Pringle stayed with issues at both OCTA and the High-Speed Rail Authority.

Examples are his interactions last November regarding the Transportation 2020 Committee, which he had previously chaired, and the Finance and Administration Committee. Pringle emailed Murray, Dunn, Nocella, Tom Umberg, then chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, and Kate Klimow of the Orange County Business Council. Pringle asked them to contact members of the committees about specific talking points.

“I would like to ask you to tell me who you feel comfortable to contact. And please keep me posted on your contacts and feedback,” Pringle wrote in an email on Nov. 23 last year.

Pringle describes his contact with OCTA officials on high-speed rail not as lobbying on a specific issue but advocacy for an issue about which he is passionate.

“Did I advocate for high-speed rail in 2011? Sure. I advocate for high-speed rail today,” Pringle said. “How is that involved in those agencies as opposed to a philosophical view on critical issues?”

Among those he contacted with his viewpoints is Dan Richard, who was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to succeed Pringle on the high-speed rail board and is its current chairman. Emails show that just a few months after leaving the board, Pringle contacted Richard by first going through Kempton.

“Had a great chat this evening with Dan Richard!” Pringle wrote to Kempton in October. “Thanks for encouraging him to connect with me.”

Kempton replied: “I think you will agree that you, he and us are on a similar track. Excuse the pun.”
High-speed rail authority officials did not make Richard available for comment.

Anaheim Business

Pringle has also stayed involved in Anaheim politics — some say too involved. He endorsed Tom Tait's candidacy for mayor, and it was widely assumed when Tait was elected that Pringle would still be pulling the levers of power.

That assumption turned out to be wrong. Soon after Tait took office, relations between the two broke down. Sources close to both say Pringle, accustomed to being in control, couldn't stand the idea that someone else was at the helm.

Many insiders say the city's controversial hotel subsidy deal deepened the divide between the two.

On Jan. 24, the City Council approved a $158-million subsidy for the developer of two four-star hotels at the city's GardenWalk center. Tait and Councilwoman Lorri Galloway broke from the council majority and voted against the subsidy. Tait had called it bad public policy that is unfair to other hoteliers in the area.

But at least one of the developers — hotelier Bill O'Connell — was a Pringle client, raising questions from some opposed to the subsidy about whether Pringle had helped secure the council votes to approve the deal.

One City Hall source said that Pringle was seen with Murray and O'Connell at The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon in Anaheim the night of the Council vote, celebrating the subsidy deal with dinner and drinks. It remains unclear what Pringle was hired to do.

O'Connell declined to answer questions when reached for comment, and Pringle also declined to answer further questions.

Some sources close to City Hall say they are disturbed by Pringle's ongoing involvement in the public sector. Some accuse him of profiting by actively working against the interests of his former constituents.  “I think you just like to know," said one source. "I think it's more of the disclosure aspect."

Others say they are not surprised that Pringle is still involved.

“I don't know what his influence is, but when you have a skill set of his — working at the state and the local level and everything in between — why wouldn't people ask him for advice?"  said Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council, which has been a Pringle client, according to Pringle's public disclosure forms.

"His experience level is extremely excellent. Isn't that his business — to represent clients and stuff like that? Isn't that what he does?”

Pringle's clients say he has served them well.

Tim Conlon, general manager of California Yellow Cab, said he hired Pringle to be the company's “eyes and ears” at Orange County city halls. “He [Pringle] does just basically what the title says, he's a consultant, he tells us what's possible and what's not possible,” Conlon said.

California Yellow Cab is in the midst of negotiating a new taxicab franchise with Anaheim, and Conlon says he hopes the City Council will grant his company a more equitable share of the taxicab licenses, which are now unevenly distributed in favor of Yellow Cab of Greater Orange County. The franchise is scheduled to come before the council in May.

Pringle has worked for California Yellow Cab since January and for an affiliated company, American Logistics, several months before that, Conlon said. “Through this franchise process, if we needed to get face time with a council member, it was certainly easier to do with Curt Pringle,” he said.

Emails obtained from the city of Anaheim show that Pringle's firm has been lobbying the city on behalf of California Yellow Cab since at least September.

“Tim and I greatly appreciate the time and interest in the issue and commitment to ensuring a fair process as this moves forward,” Curt Pringle and Associates Vice President Peter Whittingham wrote in an email to Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu's council assistant the day after Sidhu, Conlon and Whittingham met.

After that meeting, Whittingham set up another with Sidhu, himself and representatives of Pringle client Federal Signal Technologies, which had hoped but was unable to secure a contract to implement a license plate recognition system with the Anaheim Police Department.

While Whittingham is a registered lobbyist, Pringle is not registered as an active lobbyist in Sacramento or in the county.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, says there's good reason for that: Peddling influence over public officials doesn't sit well with the public.

“People don't like to be called lobbyists. That's a bad name,” Stern said. “Nobody wants their kids to grow up to become lobbyists.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at and follow him on Twitter: And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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