Some politicians just don’t know when to say enough is enough. Perhaps the COVID pandemic, which has allowed lawmakers to exert more power and control than ever before, has made them think they are untouchable and unremovable from their official offices. Just ask Democratic Governors Andrew Cuomo (NY) and Gavin Newsom (CA) how they feel now that they are in danger of being plucked from their lofty thrones. Newsom, whose critics already have nearly enough signatures to place his recall on the ballot, has just been called out by a former Golden State mayor for his use of behested payments and where he’s allocated those donations.
Will O’Neill, former Newport Beach mayor, aired his grievances on Facebook last week, saying the California governor not only received a massive amount in behested payments but also used the money to give preferred jobs and contracts to those who donated to his causes. The Republican ex-mayor asked readers to imagine they had a company and Newsom asked them for a donation to go to a “cause he cares about.” O’Neill wrote, “Seems like a shakedown, right? Nope, perfectly legal. It’s called a ‘behested payment.’”
State law requires payments of more than $5,000 to be reported, but, unlike political donations, there isn’t a cap on how much a politician can collect. Although the practice isn’t used very often, Newsom utilized it in 2019 to receive $12 million. If you think that’s a lot, during the 2020 pandemic year, he got $226 million, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Numerous complaints have been voiced because it appears the governor is granting favors through donations. Last year, Newsom raised a whopping $45 million from Kaiser Permanente and Blue Shield of California for his housing initiative. Both health companies were then chosen to help manage distribution of the virus vaccine, and Blue Shield’s president and CEO Paul Markovich was named co-chair of the governor’s COVID-19 Testing Task Force.
CapRadio, an NPR affiliate out of Sacramento, investigated other incidents of companies providing the governor large donations and then being awarded multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts. UnitedHealth, for example, made two contributions in 2018 for more than $58,000 and then another $31,000 in December 2019 for Newsom’s re-election campaign. Its reward? A no-bid contract of $177 million to a UnitedHealth subsidiary to increase COVID testing. Then, a few months later, the state awarded another $315 million in contracts to the company via an expedited bidding process.
In another case, California-based Bloom Energy donated $85,000 between September 2018 and October 2020. Last March, the company was awarded a $1 million no-bid contract that later increased to $2 million to refurbish ventilators.
Newsom has been criticized for using BYD, a Chinese manufacturing company, to provide the state with face masks. Well, BYD gave two contributions of $20,000 to the governor between March 2018 and November 2019, and in April 2020, it received a no-bid contract for the masks at almost $1 billion!
The governor’s office denies any favoritism related to donations. Erin Mellon, a spokesperson for the governor, wrote in an email, “The Governor’s Administration made the decision to enter into all contracts related to the COVID-19 response based on the best interests of the state and protecting health and welfare of all our residents.”
But critics argue that these instances are unethical, especially when there seems to be bias in deciding which companies are considered essential businesses. One noteworthy example is Hollywood and how television and movies have been able to “go on with the show” while average citizens were forced to close their businesses. In August 2020, Newsom was able to get a behested payment out of Netflix, whose lobbyist hosted the now-infamous maskless dinner at the French Laundry restaurant that set Californians on the warpath.
The tricky part is that behested payments are legal, and during a pandemic Newsom had emergency powers bestowed upon him, giving him a greater opportunity to pick and choose companies to award contracts. However, just how ethical these contract awards are is causing a problem for the governor who is facing a very real recall.
Read more from Kelli Ballard.