A California senator's decision to quit and jump to Chevron Corp. has sparked questions about whether he should have negotiated for that job while in a position to help the company politically.
Former Sen. Michael Rubio (D) resigned Friday to work as manager of California governmental affairs for Chevron (E&ENews PM, Feb. 22). He had been chairman of the state Senate's Environmental Quality Committee when he accepted the oil company position.
"There are potential conflicts of interests in his actions as a senator and chair of the Environmental Quality Committee while he was also being recruited for this job in the corporate world," said Phillip Ung, spokesman for California Common Cause, a watchdog group.
"When did these job negotiations [with Chevron] begin, and did he recuse himself from decisions that involved issues that may have affected his potential employer?" Ung added.
Rubio and his spokesman didn't respond to several requests for an interview about the job timing and any conflict. Bay Area News Group reporter Steve Harmon wrote Friday on Twitter, "Rubio: contacted Chevron over the holidays, & once a 'contingent' offer was on the table, decided to resign b4 cmte hearings began to avoid ... appearance of conflct."
"The real conflicts would start with committee hearings, so my deadline to get this done was today," Harmon quoted Rubio as saying.
Chevron didn't respond to questions on the timing of the job negotiations or requests for comments on the concerns raised by California Common Cause and others.
The conflict of interest question raised by California Common Cause is reminiscent of the charges made by groups in 2005 when then-Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, left his post to become president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Tauzin had headed work on prescription drug legislation in the previous months.
The California Senate, in contrast, has been in recess and there have not yet been hearings or votes in this session. Those are due to start next month. But Rubio in recent weeks had been holding a series of meetings on proposals to amend the California Environmental Quality Act, a landmark protection law (see related story).
He had been talking with those wanting changes in the law and conferring with Senate leadership on principles that should be in legislation on CEQA. In an interview with Greenwire in January, Rubio said that he and Democratic leaders were discussing "areas [in the law] that have been abused that we can work on"(Greenwire, Jan. 23).
Ung and others see that as a potential conflict.
"When you're the head strategist for the Democratic Party on environmental quality reform and you're helping build the Democratic Party's bill on environmental quality, and meet partners and discuss things with coalition partners, what part of that is he doing? Is he recusing himself from anything that deals with Chevron?" Ung said.
Rubio dropped his planned bill before announcing his resignation. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D) then introduced placeholder legislation that has basic tenets for changes to CEQA.
Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams rejected that Rubio did anything improper.
"Senator Rubio, he is a man that's obviously led with principles and priorities," Williams said. "The allegations that Common Cause has said aren't a concern. It's fairly predictable."
Common Cause said that it wasn't accusing Rubio of anything and that there was no evidence of wrongdoing, but that the issues should be considered.
State law says that a public official cannot "participate in making, or use his or her official position to influence, any governmental decision directly relating to any person with whom he or she is negotiating, or has any arrangement concerning, prospective employment."
The state's Fair Political Practices Commission said that "at this time we have not received a complaint or initiated a pro-active case."
"If someone files a complaint, we review the complaint to see if it contains enough indications of a violation of the Act and, if so, we open an investigation," said Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC enforcement division. "We also have the ability to proactively open cases off of any information we receive from any source, including newspaper articles, again if we feel there are enough indications of a violation."
California bans elected officials from lobbying for one year after leaving office. Chevron said Rubio won't be lobbying.
"He will have responsibility for advancing the company's interests in California state politics and public policy, supervising a team of legislative and regulatory analysts and advocates in Sacramento," Chevron said in a statement.
There are questions about whether Rubio will indirectly be helping Chevron with its lobbying, Ung and others said.
"Chevron is saying he is not doing any lobbying directly, but is he managing lobbyists?" Ung said. "Is he putting together political strategy? Is he bringing his cellphone and all the telephone numbers he's collected over time and the contacts that he's made? Is he bringing that to Chevron so they'll have a whole set of resources at their advantage?"
Chevron is one of the most active companies on advocacy in the state. Last year, it ranked sixth for total influence spending, with $5.7 million.
Ethan Elkind, a climate research fellow at the University of California, said that when someone is the head of government affairs, "they set policy."
"Maybe he's not going to get lobbying license and walk the halls" of the Legislature, Elkind said. "Every time I've seen someone as director of government affairs, they're essentially lobbying. He's got his relationships with the folks in Sacramento. I assume that's why [Chevron] wanted to hire him."
Rubio's new position would give Chevron major advantages, said Martha Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Rubio is seen as very charismatic, intelligent and influential, she and others said.
"It does make us nervous about our ability to protect public health when very powerful people end up working for very powerful companies that are bound and determined not to address issues of climate change," Arguello said. "Chevron's been very clear that it wants to dismantle [climate law] A.B. 32."
Hiring Rubio, she said, "is a very smart tactic on their part, to stand in the way of the low-carbon fuel standard, to stand in the way of many of the measures that are part of A.B. 32, that we hope will improve air quality."
Chevron has also supported Rubio politically. It gave $7,800 to his campaign in 2010, according to Maplight. Oil and gas companies combined contributed $42,600, which includes that money from Chevron. Rubio's biggest source of money when running for office, however, was labor groups, which gave $150,300.
Rubio's departure also eliminates the supermajority Democrats had in the Senate. They had enjoyed a two-thirds margin, but there are now 26 Democrats in the 40-seat chamber. Three seats are vacant.
Democrats still have 55 of 80 Assembly seats and the governor's office.
Steinberg spokesman Williams said that a March 12 special election for two of those vacancies -- the seats held by Gloria Negrete McLeod of Los Angeles and Juan Vargas of San Diego -- could restore the supermajority.
The ballot is a primary, but a Democrat should win a majority of votes in the district previously held by Vargas, Williams said.
Williams also said Democrats don't see a need for a supermajority right now.
Steinberg has envisioned this year as a time for planning and strategic thinking, Williams said, about measures that would be put on the 2014 ballot. Those include constitutional changes that would lower the needed vote passage amount on certain tax measures from two-thirds to 55 percent, he said.
Even if Democrats had a majority of just one seat, he said, "it doesn't change the strategy of caucus." California's legislative sessions are two years.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said Democrats should be able to recapture Rubio's seat, the state Senate's 16th District. It includes all of Kings County and parts of Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties.
Republicans in last year's election made up 46 percent of registered voters there, while Democrats made up 30 percent. An additional 19 percent of voters in the district didn't declare a political party, and 4 percent were independents. It is seen as a conservative district.
"There's no way to know for sure until it's clear who the candidates are, but you'd probably consider a Democrat favored to hold a seat," Schnur said.
The larger concern for Democrats than Rubio's seat or the supermajority, he said, is filling Rubio's leadership role on issues like CEQA. Rubio also was vocal on hydraulic fracturing and the state's green chemistry rules, which would identify about 1,200 substances as "chemicals of concern."
"The biggest impact of Rubio leaving is not a question of partisan balance in the Senate but rather how to fill his key role as the key player in the discussion over regulatory reform and energy policy," Schnur said.
Reporter Debra Kahn contributed.