Thursday, September 21, 2006

UC Regent Calling on Tobacco Funding Ban at UC Was Recipient of Big Tobacco Campaign Money

As I reported here last Friday, University of California (UC) Regent and state Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante is calling on the Regents to adopt a policy refusing tobacco industry funding of research at the University of California. In a September 13 letter to his fellow University of California regents, he condemned a UCLA study for reporting findings that go against the prevailing belief that secondhand smoke is a cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers and for its having been used by opponents of smoking bans to help defeat a smoking ordinance in Missouri. He states that the tobacco companies are unlawful conspirators and that accepting tobacco money is "bad business."

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story is that according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Bustamante apparently accepted nearly $80,000 from Big Tobacco during his time as a state Assembly member.

According to the article: "It is a surprising position for Bustamante, whose staff acknowledged he took almost $80,000 from tobacco companies during his five years in the state Assembly."

According to research from UCSF, Bustamante accepted more than $60,000 in Big Tobacco funding during the 1995-1996 legislative session alone: "Both Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) ($63,750) and Senate President pro Tempore Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) ($127,875) received more money that U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich ($30,500)."

Accepting money from corporations to allow them to buy influence in policy making is apparently not something that Bustamante has always thought was problematic. According to another San Francisco Chronicle article, Bustamante is "the politician who received the largest fine ever levied by the Fair Political Practices Commission."

The article explains that "Bustamante was fined $263,000 by the FPPC for improperly moving $3.8 million between campaign committees during the election to recall Gray Davis. He took $8 million from Indian tribes in the recall, and he later took $120,000 from the same insurance industry groups he wants to regulate."

Bustamante also apparently crafted a new technique to help him evade campaign contributions laws. According to the California Nurses Association web site: "The ballot process has been further corrupted by the new technique pioneered by Cruz Bustamante and perfected by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which candidates for public office use ballot measure committees to evade the state's contribution limits. Bustamante, Schwarzenegger, and Phil Angelides have all used these committees, which are currently not subject to any limits on the size of contributions they can receive, to advance themselves as candidates."

To make matters worse, according to the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights, Bustamante has a poor understanding of what is meant by conflict of interest. The Foundation states that Bustamante, "running all but unopposed in the Democratic primary for the post of state insurance commissioner, has taken at least $120,000 in contributions from insurance companies in the past year (as of Feb. 2006) and accepted free meals and travel from the industry he seeks to regulate, a blatant conflict of interest. He also failed to report some of the industry-paid travel on his campaign disclosure statements."

This allegation is supported by a San Francisco Chronicle article: "Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the leading Democratic candidate for state insurance commissioner, has taken large contributions and accepted free meals and travel from the industry he seeks to regulate. In the past year, Bustamante has received more than $120,000 in campaign donations from insurance companies, their trade groups and individual brokers, records show. He and top aides also have accepted from those in the insurance industry hundreds of dollars in free meals and travel expenses at restaurants and resorts in Pebble Beach, Las Vegas and San Diego -- some of which Bustamante did not report on his disclosure statements, according to records."

According to a article, entitled "A Crisis in Democracy," Bustamante's acceptance of Big Tobacco funding was influential in his legislative actions. Salon writes that "Big Tobacco has gotten its money's worth."

In light of the rest of this story, Bustamante calling on the UC Regents to reject tobacco company funding of research reeks of hypocrisy. How much credibility does he exactly have when he himself accepted tens of thousands of dollars in Big Tobacco money? How much integrity does he appear to have in arguing that it is wrong for UC to take tobacco money, but not for him.

I guess tobacco money only corrupts when it is in the hands of researchers, not politicians.

I should mention, before closing, that it is always possible that Bustamante has had some sort of epiphany and that he is a completely reformed individual who has changed his views and his ways. But if that's the case, then he needs to admit that he erred and publicly apologize for his past actions in order to gain credibility.

I should also mention that this story has no impact on my support for the proposed policy of rejecting tobacco funding at UC. Readers familiar with my position on this issue will understand that I support the proposal because I think accepting tobacco money conflicts with the basic mission of the University, which has nothing to do with serving as a public relations pawn of the tobacco industry, an industry which has been found guilty of racketeering.

But the irony here is just too much to pass up. And I think those who truly support integrity, honesty, and the highest standards of research as well as public governance need to call out Bustamante on this issue. Sure, I think he is supporting a worthwhile cause. But to turn a blind eye to his own hypocrisy would, in the long run, only serve to condone the very problem that we are trying to confront with the UC Regents proposal.

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