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Lending skills or taking refuge? Ex-state lawmakers take Capitol jobs

Legislative leaders defend appointing, hiring ex-officials; activists call it lingering system of patronage

After leaving the state Senate in 2013 for health reasons, and before returning to the Senate in a special election last month, Sharon Runner was kept on the Senate payroll by her Republican colleagues as an aide.

And after term limits forced Democratic state Sen. Ellen Corbett from office, Senate leader Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) appointed her to a $128,109 post on a state board.

That panel, the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, also includes former Assemblyman Michael Allen, appointed by an Assembly speaker.

Runner, Corbett and Allen are part of a long line of political insiders given jobs by the Legislature over the years, some while biding their time until they can run for office again. Others are related to powerful political figures.

Legislative leaders defend the practice of appointing and hiring former officials, saying it provides the state with expertise. Taxpayer activist Lew Uhler disagreed, saying such hiring shows a lingering system of political patronage at the state Capitol.

The practice, said Uhler, president of the California-based National Tax Limitation Committee, is an “abuse of public resources.”

Lawmakers wield broad powers to hire and appoint whomever they wish. Legislative employees do not have to go through the Civil Service exam process that requires most other government applicants to compete for jobs on merit.

Runner, a Lancaster resident who was elected to the Senate for a second time in a special election last month, was hired as a part-time legislative employee in February 2013, two months after leaving office to recover her health following a double lung transplant.

Until Jan. 26 of this year, she was paid $2,530 a month for “providing valuable counsel to members on constituent outreach and community events within their districts,” said Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar.

“The Legislature has drawn on the experience of former legislators in the past to perform similar duties,” he said.

Runner, whose husband is former Sen. George Runner, now a member of the State Board of Equalization, said she wasn’t thinking of running again for the Senate when she took the legislative aide job.

“I just wanted to be helpful. I worked on some women’s issues and some outreach,” Runner said, adding that she organized health fairs in the districts of Republican state Sens. Andy Vidak of Hanford and Anthony Cannella of Ceres. “It seemed like we needed to do more of that--outreach that nobody’s focusing on.”

When state Sen. Steve Knight won a seat in Congress last fall, Runner said, she began to think about running to replace him. Her campaign began in December.

In 2008, the Senate paid Rod Wright at least $27,900 as a consultant while he was between political jobs. He had served in the Assembly and won a Senate race that year in an Inglewood-based district. A Democrat, Wright resigned last year after being convicted and sentenced for lying about living in his district.

And Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) was a field representative for Assemblyman Warren Furutani, making $50,000 a year, before being elected in 2012. Furutani said he gave Calderon a job based on a referral by the “Assembly leadership.”

At the time, Ian Calderon’s father, Charles Calderon, was the Assembly majority leader.

Fabian Wesson is a consultant to the Senate Rules Committee, providing a liaison with the public in Los Angeles. She was hired in 2004 by former Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Los Angeles) as her husband, Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson, then a former Assembly speaker, was forced from office by term limits.

In 2009, Fabian Wesson went to work for the state Senate, where she makes $90,000 a year. Neither Wesson nor her husband returned calls for comment.

Other legislative employees with family ties to Sacramento include Chance Condit, the grandson of former Assemblyman Gary Condit. He was hired by Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), who is married to the daughter of Gary Condit.

Helen Condit, Gary Condit’s daughter-in-law, is an aide to state Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres), earning $73,700.

And Robert Brulte, brother of former Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte, is a consultant for the Senate, making $102,900 recording lawmakers' comments for distribution to radio stations.

A spokeswoman for Senate leader De Leon defended his appointment of former Sen. Corbett to a high-paying state position.

“The notion that certain Californians should somehow be disqualified from state employment because they happen to be former elected officials is preposterous,” said the spokeswoman, Claire Conlon, “and would only serve to deny the state a diverse talent pool of highly committed, qualified and uniquely experienced citizens.”

But one lawmaker is taking aim at the salaries provided to some legislative appointees.

Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Murrieta) proposes a $12,000 annual salary for 12 state boards and commissions.

“We’ve got to put an end to these high-paying commissions that serve no other purpose than to provide a living for termed-out legislators,” Stone said.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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