How Rob Reiner got away with (figurative) murder

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On this date in 2005, TV and radio commercials touting the benefit of preschool for all aired throughout California, paid for with $23 million in public funds supplied by First 5 California, the agency established by voters in 1998 to provide for programs for children under 5, funded with a surcharge on cigarettes. The ads ran as signature gathering continued for a “preschool for all” ballot initiative led by actor/director/activist Rob Reiner. The problem for anyone with a shred of ethics: Reiner chaired both the First 5 commission and the preschool initiative committee.

Reiner may have recused himself from the decision to fund the media campaign, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a grotesque abuse of power and quite possibly an illegal use of government funds for political purposes. But Reiner skated, and with one exception, nobody in the California media ever tried to figure out how that came to pass.This was amazing. It was $23 million, after all — not a trival sum.

Yeah, I was the exception. Here’s what I came up with in March 2010:

His e-mails were deleted, possibly illegally: How Rob Reiner escaped a criminal probe

Early in 2006 – when the first reports came out documenting that the First 5 children’s services agency had spent $23 million in taxpayer funds on a TV ad campaign touting “preschool for all” at the same time Rob Reiner, left, the First 5 chairman, was gathering signatures for a “preschool for all” initiative – Sacramento observers noted the parallels to a scam executed by former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

After state regulators determined State Farm, Allstate and 20th Century had repeatedly violated claims-handling procedures. Quackenbush agreed not to fine the companies if they gave $12 million to foundations he had created.

“Funds from the foundation were used to finance television ads featuring Quackenbush, provide contracts for his political advisers and make contributions to charities, some of which were connected to him,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2000, just before Quackenbush resigned.

How did the scam come to light? Cindy Ossias, a lawyer for the state Department of Insurance, leaked documents outlining it to the Legislature.

Quackenbush soon left the state in disgrace. He escaped criminal charges, but only after an 18-month investigation by state and federal authorities.

In sharp contrast, while Reiner eventually did resign under fire, he never faced a serious criminal investigation. Then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer referred the case to Sacramento County DA Jan Scully, and Scully chose to do nothing after reviewing a critical but exculpatory report on First 5 prepared by the Bureau of State Audits.

But just as a legislative committee’s inquiry into the scam was obstructed by First 5 Executive Director Kris Perry’s refusal to testify, the audit report was obstructed by the convenient disappearance of e-mails of 10 First 5 officials. This detail had never been reported in the California media until I blogged about it recently; it was buried in small print in a footnote in the audit report.

The official explanation: “In the course of complying with the BSA audit it was brought to our attention that the IT lead at the time had a practice of deleting rather than disabling former employees’ e-mail accounts,”  First 5 spokesman Bill Madison said in an e-mail.

Madison told me he could not tell me the name of the “IT lead” because of state privacy laws. Terry Francke, the Sacramento attorney who is a leading authority on California’s open-government laws, says that’s just not accurate – and that the deletion of the e-mails could have been prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor under Government Code 6200, which makes it illegal “to alter, remove or destroy a public record.”

This apparently was of no concern to audit officials in 2006.

Whose e-mails were deleted? Audit officials have faxed me a list of the 10 officials whose e-mails investigators never saw – and they involve virtually every key player in the scandal.

Reiner.

•Benjamin Austin, the consultant who helped oversee the $23 million “preschool for all” taxpayer-funded TV ad campaign and then – after the “preschool for all” signature-gathering qualified the measure for the ballot – immediately went to work as chairman of the Proposition 82 “preschool for all” campaign,

•Michael Trujillo and Patricia Owen, two other media consultants.

•Jane Henderson, Perry’s predecessor as First 5 executive director, who was quoted in a 2004 Sacramento Bee story talking about the urgent need for “preschool for all.”

All of which hammers home just how inexplicable it was for state Auditor Elaine Howle to absolve First 5 of a criminal effort to use taxpayers funds for the explicit political purpose of qualifying a ballot initiative. Her report should have said it was impossible to be sure because of missing evidence. The fact that Reiner’s, Austin’s and Henderson’s e-mails disappeared should have been on the first page of the audit bureau’s report, not buried in a vague footnote.

To repeat an old line, a closet stuffed with rotting carcasses couldn’t smell anymore than this.

If only there was someone with Cindy Ossias’ character and honesty in First 5, justice might have been done here. A whistle-blower would have made it impossible for Lockyer, Scully and Howle to sweep this brazen assault on state law under the rug.

Respectfully yours,

C. Reed, Investigative Whiner, targeting R. Reiner, Taxpayer Waterboarder