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Thomas D. Elias: Cronyism admission stains Schwarzenegger
Thomas D. Elias 2011-04-25 23:02:52
There were a lot of questionable actions and policies during the seven years Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, many at least bordering on outright corruption. All the suspicions about one of the last of those acts have now been confirmed by the man who once gleefully adopted the sobriquet "governator." This move came only moments before Schwarzenegger was termed out of office, departing with a legacy of failure in his avowed aims of restoring both fiscal integrity and public faith in state government. At the 11th hour of his term, Schwarzenegger commuted the prison sentence of Esteban Nunez, convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the 2008 stabbing death of a San Diego State University student, reducing his term from an already light 16 years to seven. Nunez, the son of former Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who often seemed like Schwarzenegger's lapdog while they hobnobbed across the state, had bragged to his co-criminals that his daddy would get them off easy. The younger Nunez caught a major break when he was charged with manslaughter, not murder. All he did, his lawyers argued, was hold the victim — 22-year-old Luis Santos — while others knifed him. Is that all? At the time he cut the sentence, Schwarzenegger said nothing about it. Now he has. In a remarkable interview with Newsweek magazine, the ex-governor and onetime muscleman (muscles much reduced these days, seemingly diminishing in concert with his reputation) blustered that Esteban Nunez was right. His daddy did get him off easy. "I feel good about the decision ... I happen to know the kid really well," Schwarzenegger said. "There's criticism out there ... because of our working relationship and all that. It maybe was kind of saying 'That's why he did it.' Well, hello! I mean, of course you help a friend." There it was, Schwarzenegger's first outright admission of a gubernatorial decision made strictly out of cronyism — a longstanding form of political corruption. This longtime actor made it plain he believes government should run like show-business, where children of stars and directors (examples: Gwyneth Paltrow, daughter of director Bruce Paltrow, and Kate Hudson, daughter of Goldie Hawn, and Liza Minnelli, daughter of singer Judy Garland and director Vicente Minnelli) often get first crack at becoming stars on their own. Who you know helps greatly as they showcase their talents before others get a chance. By contrast, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires government to treat everyone equally. Schwarzenegger's admission immediately raised questions about his seven years at California's helm. Among them, two are the most relevant: What other friends did he help? What did it take to become a Friend of Arnold?
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For sure, the Nunez commutation was far from the first Schwarzenegger move that looked corrupt on its face. There was his reduction of the vehicle license fee on his first day in office, a move that vastly benefited car dealers who largely bankrolled his 2003 recall election campaign and still costs the cash-strapped state about $5 billion a year. A payoff? There were moves favoring developers, casino Indian tribes, oil and chemical companies and many other big money contributors to his political funds. Sure, Schwarzenegger spent some personal money on his campaigns, but others put in more and were often rewarded. Schwarzenegger had virtually promised they would be, observing while he declared for office that political donors expect significant returns on their investments. It was just the kind of behavior that led to the recall of ex-Gov. Gray Davis, but Schwarzenegger did it with far more style, so he still hasn't paid a price. Even now, after his Nunez admission, he's an honored guest at conferences on the environment and immigration and gets movie project offers. The lack of consequences is reminiscent of his time as governor. He promised to hire a private investigator to look into his acknowledged longtime womanizing, exposed just before the 2003 election. He never did, and paid no price. When newspapers exposed a million-dollar contract that had his campaign consultant, Mike Murphy, helping promoters of a proposed Ventura County liquefied natural gas receiving terminal that would need Schwarzenegger approval, neither Schwarzenegger nor Murphy paid any penalty. When this column exposed how his appointees approved huge price increases for a water company owned by the Chevron oil company — one of his largest donors — nothing happened. Now Schwarzenegger acknowledges only that the lack of prior notice given the victim's family in the Nunez commutation violated state law. "My office definitely made a mistake," he conceded. Chances are there will be no consequences for that either. All of which leaves strong implications of frequent and serious wrongdoing throughout Schwarzenegger's administration. Unless he willingly answers questions about all this, those implications should forever stain the ex-muscleman, ex-governor's reputation and legacy.