By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Playing politics with tax dollars to fight repeal of gas tax hike
Dennis Wyatt

“Building California” apparently means using the Sacramento bureaucracy to target Republican congressmen including Jeff Denham.

In September 2017 in the taxpayer-financed California State Transportation Agency building in Sacramento, the taxpayer-financed computer belonging to the agency’s deputy secretary for communication and strategic planning Melissa Figueroa received an email from Brandon Castillo.

Castillo – a principal in the public relations firm Sacramento-based Bicker, Castillo, & Fairbanks – sent that computer an email that clearly crossed the line: “Hey Melissa – We’re penning opeds (sic) targeting the following Congressional Republicans.” Those Republicans were Denham, Steve Knight, Darrell Issa, and Mimi Walters. The discussion was aimed at vulnerable Republicans and essentially pressuring them to oppose the repeal of the gas tax in retribution for Republicans in general for putting the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot. The idea was to list what projects the 12-cent gas tax under Senate Bill 1 is financing in each congressman’s district.

We know this because of the efforts of an Associated Press investigation.

Why this matters is the “relationship” the state bureaucracy has the with the PR firm. First, they used tax dollars to hire the firm to organize news conferences and promote the 12-cent debt gas tax hike. 

Let’s be clear what that meant. They were essentially whipping up public opinion to pressure the California Legislature to pass Senate Bill 1 to increase the gas tax that is now being immortalized in the slick “Build California” media blitz.

If that stuns you given it smacks of politicking, it isn’t illegal in the Land of Sacramento for a taxpayer-funded agency to use tax dollars to mount campaigns essentially to secure more tax dollars. One must have more money coming through your department to keep building the fiefdom and to make sure future pay raises are justified.

Here’s where it becomes dicey. Apparently high ranking “public servants” within the transportation agency decided to switch to self-serving mode and continued to use the PR firm to counter efforts via social media and such to combat the campaign to gather signatures to get a proposal to repeal the gas tax on the Nov. 6 ballot. This is justified because the agency argued they were simply educating the public even though it looks clear that they were taking sides in what has become a major political issue.

The agency says they stopped working with the firm once the repeal qualified for the ballot although AP reports a non-dated memo showed the agency and firm in intended to work together for several months through the primary to coordinate efforts to stop the gas tax repeal. Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks is now a hired gun of the anti-repeal coalition’s campaign to get Californians to vote “no” on Proposition 6 on the Nov. 6 ballot.

So, is the transportation agency that oversees Caltrans engaging in political campaigning and using tax dollars to do so?

Folks with the Federal Election Commission and California Fair Political Practices Commission essentially viewed it as “maybe it’s a little too cozy, but I wouldn’t say that it’s clearly inappropriate.”

That’s not exactly a resounding verdict of innocence.

Others such as government ethics expert Bob Stern noted “clearly the agency was trying to coordinate with the campaign, and they shouldn’t have.”

Government ethics expert Jessica Levinson of Loyola Law School pulled no punches about the agency and PR firm having too close of a relationship noting the email exchange about the Republican congressmen crossed the line.

“I mean way over the line,” Levinson told AP.

The stated goal of the emails was to pressure influential California Republicans in Congress to advocate rejecting the repeal. 

Figueroa’s following up email to Castillo’s proposal that they target “vulnerable” Republicans suggested that she or the head of the agency at the time – Brian Kelly – join the effort to find someone to author a piece targeting Issa in San Diego given he was the most vulnerable Republican. 

Issa ended up not running for re-election. The piece targeting Issa was never written. Figueroa told AP she only offered help in the bid to find an author because it would “educate” people in Issa’s district.

If you believe this all about education then you’d also believe politics didn’t add more than six years and hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost to replace the eastern span of the Bay Bridge that was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. 

The agency’s disgraceful behind-the-scenes political manipulation and campaigning in the supposed name of public education was conducted using tax dollars.

This is in addition to what the group behind the gas tax repeal say they’ve uncovered in the form of emails and other documents that apparently show government workers discussing the repeal effort. They also have a video they’ve circulated of a Caltrans contractor in Southern California passing out anti-Proposition 6 campaign material to drivers in a construction zone.

It’s just more evidence of the bureaucracy overstepping its boundaries.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.