BY THE SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL BOARD
UPDATED SEPTEMBER 12, 2019 04:14 PM
Will Ricardo Lara survive his first term as California’s insurance commissioner? We can’t say for sure.
While it’s hard to dislodge an elected constitutional officer from office, career implosions are not completely unprecedented in politics. Just ask former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush. The Republican tendered his resignation in 2000 after the scandals engulfing his office made it impossible for him to continue.
He was never charged with a crime, but his misdeeds – which included using the power of his office to harvest financial contributions from the insurance companies he was charged with regulating – killed his credibility.
Quackenbush’s flameout inspired a new rule for California’s subsequent insurance commissioners: Don’t take money from insurance companies.
The rule survived for nearly 20 years. Then along came Lara. He’s been caught red-handed taking sneaky donations from people connected to the insurance industry. Now he’s fighting back against suggestions that the money – over $50,000 in all – affected his decision-making as insurance commissioner.
He’s also on the defensive after Politico revealed that he’s been sticking California taxpayers with the bill for rent on his apartment in Sacramento. And when asked by a Sacramento Bee reporter who had paid for his ticket to a fancy New Year’s Eve party in London that he attended with an insurance industry lobbyist, he initially refused to answer.
To be clear, there’s no evidence that Lara has broken the law. Yet there’s no question that he has broken his word and broken faith with voters.
Lara pledged to refuse contributions from the insurance industry. Then he took the money anyway.
He claimed to have received the donations unknowingly due to staff incompetence. New evidence suggests he knew about the donations.
He claims the money did not influence his decisions as insurance commissioner. But how are we supposed to believe a politician who has already lied multiple times?
All told, Lara collected some $54,000 from insurance company executives and their spouses. Some of the contributions, from the wives of insurance company figures, seem as if they were designed to evade detection.
When the San Diego Union-Tribune uncovered the donations, Lara tried to downplay the issue.
“He issued a statement saying he hoped voters would evaluate his performance as the California Department of Insurance commissioner, a position that oversees more than $310 billion in homeowner, workers’ compensation and other policies every year,” according to the Union-Tribune.
Lara caved after newspapers hammered him for his dishonesty. He pledged to return the suspicious donations and blamed an underling for the mess.
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Lara then spent months resisting requests to release his official calendar. Now we know why. The calendars, obtained last week by The Sacramento Bee’s Hannah Wiley, are revealing.
“California’s top regulator of insurance companies sought campaign contributions from the industry and partied with one of its lobbyists after winning his election last year, according to records and social media posts obtained by The Sacramento Bee,” wrote Wiley.
Memos obtained by The Bee reveal that Lara scheduled a March 12 lunch “with executives of companies awaiting Lara’s approval in the sale of a workers compensation agency.”
The purpose of the lunch? “Relationship building” for Lara’s 2022 re-election campaign, according to a memo by fundraising consultant Dan Weitzman.
Soon after, the cash started rolling in.
“In April, he accepted more than $50,000 in campaign donations from insurance representatives and their spouses. Some of the money came from out-of-state donors who have ties to one of the companies scheduled to be represented at the lunch,” wrote Wiley.
Then, Lara’s office “intervened in at least four proceedings involving a company with ties to insurance executives and their spouses who donated tens of thousands of dollars to his re-election campaign,” according to an investigation by Union-Tribune reporter Jeff McDonald.
Social media posts obtained by The Bee raise troubling questions about who paid the bill when Lara jetted to the fancy party in London.
There, he partied on New Years Eve with Farmers Insurance lobbyist Victoria Stewart. Tickets to the swank event in London’s upscale Shard building costs $550 “for a five-course meal, drinks, DJ entertainment until 3:30 a.m. and a ‘glass of Veuve Clicquot Champagne on arrival,’” according to advertisements obtained by The Bee.
When asked who paid for Lara’s ticket to the extravaganza, Lara’s staff ducked the question and referred to The Bee as “TMZ,” a celebrity gossip site.
We’d be more worried about the FBI if we were Lara’s staff. His office has repeatedly stonewalled on releasing public information and refused to answer simple questions. Maybe it’s time for professionals – the kind with badges – to conduct the interrogations. (After initially refusing to answer the question, Lara’s staff finally said he had paid for his own ticket to the London party.)
Lara has repeatedly apologized for his transgressions while simultaneously resisting transparency. It’s long past time for him to own up and come clean.
He needs to explain why a bunch of people linked to insurance industry executives wrote fat checks to his campaign. He must explain why he interfered in certain cases involving the companies connected to those donations.
He should also start paying his own damn rent.
In the meantime, the 2022 re-election campaign should be the least of his worries.