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In Sacramento, Limits Are Few on Revolving Door Between Government and Private Jobs

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To the old saying that "It's not what you know, it's who you know," there's an addendum in the world of Sacramento insiders: It's also for whom you worked.

And more often than not in the community surrounding the state Capitol, those with real influence have worked a lot of places.

"In this town, what's interesting is one minute you're an advocate and the next minute, you're the decision-maker," says Richard Costigan. "And then you're going to rotate back out."

Costigan, a registered lobbyist and former legislative affairs secretary to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is one of countless men and women in state government circles whose influence has grown with each new job. And while that may not be unlike other walks of life, there are nonetheless rules regarding the "revolving door" between public and private sector employment -- rules put in place to avoid any chance that public policy decisions are tainted by undue influence.


"This is somewhat different than just a private individual changing jobs," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles and president of the city's ethics commission. "The revolving door is more like a swing right now, where you can run through it pretty easily."

The real question, say observers, is whether that influence should be better disclosed to the public. Unlike the private sector, where it's mainly one's Rolodex that gets packed into a moving box, public sector officials also bring with them at least some of the secret recipes into how government really works.

Do Existing Limits On Influence Work?

"There's only about three people who actually understand this stuff," said Gov. Jerry Brown as he signed a package of midyear budget changes on March 23, 2011.

And one of the three people the governor was clearly referring to was standing beside him: his legislative affairs secretary, Gareth Elliott. It was Elliott's job to help Brown sift through hundreds of bills that would be either signed into law or vetoed.

Gareth Elliott (R) hands Gov. Jerry Brown paperwork during a bill signing on March 24, 2011. A powerful lobbying firm announced Elliott would be joining their team just days after Elliott left the Brown administration.
Gareth Elliott (R) hands Gov. Jerry Brown paperwork during a bill signing on March 24, 2011. A powerful lobbying firm announced Elliott would be joining their team just days after Elliott left the Brown administration. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A well-respected veteran adviser to Democrats in Sacramento, Elliott served as Brown's top legislative aide for almost four years. This past January, he left the administration. And like so many others in Sacramento, he became a lobbyist.

Citing his "extensive previous experience," partners in the powerful lobbying firm Sacramento Advocates issued a press release within days announcing that Elliott would be joining their firm -- a firm, said the statement, "whose clients have long included some of the nation's largest and most widely recognized businesses, trade associations and non-profit entities."

Elliott did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

But while state regulations require a one-year ban on lobbying for the state's highest-ranking officials -- legislators, agency secretaries and top gubernatorial aides -- the restriction is limited only to lobbying the branch of government for which the ex-employee used to work.

In other words, a former adviser to a governor can immediately lobby the Legislature.

"That's certainly an indication that the restrictions aren't particularly stringent," said Loyola Law School's Levinson.

Does The Former Job Help? Maybe

A half-dozen former legislators or top government officials were contacted for this story, and most declined to speak about their transitions from public to private sector work.

But those who did disputed any assertion that their inside expertise led to significant victories for the interest groups that they count as clients.

Former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, seen here in 2009.
Former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, seen here in 2009. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

"I still think, at the end of the day, that good public policy wins," said Costigan, the former Schwarzenegger-adviser-turned-lobbyist. "Do you get the benefit of the doubt, because of a relationship, if the policy is close? Maybe."

Others say that experienced hands can help steer all sides of complex policy debates to a successful compromise.

"There are different ways to participate and have an impact," said Darrell Steinberg, the former leader of the state Senate.

Steinberg, who left office last year due to term limits, is now a partner in a law firm that touts its ability to help Fortune 500 clients navigate governmental and legal affairs in Sacramento.

"Somebody said to me before I left," said Steinberg, "that when you leave public office you lose your authority, but you don't necessarily lose your power."

Critics, though, contend that power may be a public asset that translates into personal profit. Several insiders contacted for this story said the real reason that so many influential people travel through the Capitol's revolving door is to make up for years of small salaries paid by working in state service.

But others dispute the allure of a bigger paycheck. Bill Emmerson made headlines in 2013 when he resigned his state Senate seat representing parts of San Bernardino County and was quickly hired as a senior vice president of the California Hospitals Association.

Did he leave for the money?

"No," said Emmerson in an interview. "I just have had a long history in health care policy issues, and I wanted to continue."

Limits Vs. Disclosure

The existing "revolving door" regulations designed to lessen the private-sector benefit of public -ector experience are limited.

The one-year ban on legislators or top executive branch officials covers only registered lobbying, not any number of other influential posts. Neither former senator, Steinberg nor Emmerson, is a registered lobbyist and they say they have no intention of becoming one.

But there is no restriction on one particularly influential pool of state employees: legislative staff.

Top aides to members of the state Assembly and Senate can, and do, move freely between their jobs in the statehouse and jobs as lobbyists, strategists and advocates. A KQED News analysis of existing staff rosters finds more than two dozen of the Legislature's most high-ranking positions -- chief of staff and top consultant to a legislative committee -- have resumes with influential stints working for labor unions, energy companies, trade associations and beyond.

That stands in contrast to "revolving door" regulations in local governments across the state. The city of Los Angeles imposes a two-year ban on elected officials being paid to influence a city agency.  And San Francisco and Santa Clara counties impose lifetime lobbying bans for a former employee when it comes to items they worked on during their time with their county tenure.

In the end, though, the rules may do less to lessen the flexing of political muscle for personal profit than simple disclosure.

"When it comes to the revolving door, we are drawing these lines that just allow for an enormous amount of influence-peddling to still occur," said Loyola law professor Levinson. "Part of this is, there is no perfect law."

KQED News producer Guy Marzorati contributed to this report. Exclusive animation by Mark Fiore.

To see other stories in the KQED News series on government influence, visit the California Political Muscle homepage.

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