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For Pete's Sake 

Why giant corporations like PG&E bankrolled a juvenile crime initiative

Wednesday, Jan 12 2000
Though it's garnered little media attention, a crime initiative pushed by former Gov. Pete Wilson on the upcoming March ballot would significantly alter the state's juvenile justice system, funneling many more young people into adult prisons.

If approved, Proposition 21, the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, would give prosecutors discretion to try teens as young as 14 years old in adult court for certain crimes, and sentence 16-year-olds convicted of rape or murder to the state Department of Corrections. The measure would also come down hard on gang members, forcing anyone convicted of a gang-related felony to register with local law enforcement, similar to the existing requirement for sex offenders, and broadly expand the state's Three Strikes law to include gang-related felonies as strikes.

"We must make clear to the violent youthful offenders -- the ones who just don't want to be saved -- that California will not tolerate their depravity," Wilson says in the campaign literature. "[The initiative] will replace slaps on the wrist with the slapping on of handcuffs."

The state's law enforcement associations have endorsed the initiative, along with an assortment of victim organizations such as Justice for Murder Victims and Mike Reynolds, the "Father of Three Strikes."

But, curiously, almost all of the money donated to date to push for Proposition 21's passage hasn't come from victims' groups or law enforcement lobbies.

Instead, a host of heavyweight corporations that would seem to have no direct interest in locking up teenagers have been bankrolling the Prop. 21 campaign: Pacific Gas & Electric contributed $50,000 to the campaign. Unocal also gave $50,000. Transamerica contributed $25,000. Chevron contributed $25,000. Accounting firms KPMG Peat Marwick and Ernst & Young each donated $5,000. The donor list also includes ARCO, Price Waterhouse, and San Diego Gas & Electric.

Altogether, the pro-Prop. 21 campaign took in about $740,000 in 1998, during Wilson's last year in office, when the measure's supporters gathered approximately 650,000 signatures to place the issue on the ballot. But in the first nine months of 1999 -- after Wilson's term ended and he abandoned any notions of running for the presidency -- donations fell to about $190,000.

Why would a bevy of oil and utility companies get behind a juvenile crime initiative? According to the corporations, it's because Pete Wilson told them to. When contacted, most of the corporate contributors admitted they knew and cared very little about juvenile justice. But when a two-term governor -- and long-shot presidential candidate -- comes calling for money, it's best to say yes.

"Governor Wilson brought this issue to the company, and, after weighing its merits, we decided that California voters should have the opportunity to decide for themselves," said Ron Low, a spokesperson for PG&E, insisting that the utility's $50,000 donation was not an endorsement. "We were contributing to the roots of democracy by allowing for a good hearty debate."

A spokesperson for Chevron, while acknowledging the company's contribution, says now that the oil giant has ponied up its money, it does not want to have anything more to do with Prop. 21. "Our support was given upon a request from then-Governor Pete Wilson," said Dawn Loper, a company spokesperson. "There doesn't seem to be a lot of strong support out there for the initiative, and we don't intend to offer any further support."

Unocal would not talk about its contribution. "The donation came in response to a request, I don't know by whom," says Barry Lane, a spokesperson for the oil giant. Lane would not elaborate or answer any further questions.

In his two terms as governor, Wilson linked himself to a number of wedge issues similar to his current juvenile crime initiative, taking on illegal immigrants, affirmative action, and labor unions. But Wilson no longer has the bully pulpit from which to plug Prop. 21. After stepping down from office, he took a job with Pacific Capital Group, a Beverly Hills-based investment firm. And without the visibility and clout Wilson once enjoyed, funding for his youth crime initiative is running dry.

The fact that Wilson was able to collect as much money as he did is testament to the tremendous power the Governor's Office holds. Contributions from the state's biggest companies would raise very few eyebrows if Wilson were slated for another few years in office -- most corporations look for any chance they can get to give money to the state's top officeholders, even if the cause has no relation to their core business. But Wilson was on his way out, making the corporate largess appear all the more curious.

"It's the strange nature of the California initiative process," says Sherry Bebich Jeffe, a political science professor at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. "Anyone can have influence. Even a lame duck governor with only a few months left in office can still wield power."

Of course, in 1998, Wilson was still considering running for president, says Edget Bitru, an organizer for the No on Prop. 21 campaign. "Those donations were to the 'Pete Wilson for President' campaign, not the initiative," she says. "What does PG&E know about juvenile justice?"

In the first months following Wilson's exit from office, contributions to the campaign came to a screeching halt. No money was collected in the first nine months of 1999. In fact, funding has become so scarce, Wilson has forgiven a $100,000 loan he made to the campaign. While Matt Ross, spokesperson for the Californians to End Gang Violence, which was formed to sponsor the initiative, claims a little money has come in since, the campaign appears to be running on fumes.

"There's never enough money," Ross says with a nervous chuckle, adding that the campaign has a few fund-raisers planned this month with invitations to businesses throughout the state. "It wasn't that long ago that people were afraid to go out at night. Anything that makes the streets safer will definitely help business."

About The Author

Matt Isaacs


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