It's not that Gov. Jerry Brown did anything illegal. It clearly was within the law. But it had an odor.
It's the kind of smell that turns off the public from politics and exacerbates the ridiculously low voter participation in elections.
True, there wasn't anything on the Nov. 4 state ballot to excite the masses. But there's a growing feeling that voting doesn't matter anyway — that what really counts is the gobs of special-interest money spent to influence politicians.
"I have yet to meet a public official while they're in office who says that money influences them," says longtime political reformer Bob Stern. "But once he got out of office [in the 1980s], Jerry told me that money did influence him."
Stern co-wrote the California political reform act 40 years ago that helped propel Brown, his then-boss, into the governor's office during the Watergate era.
"When he's out of office, Jerry is a wonderful reformer," Stern says. "When in office, not so much."
And this brings us back to what Brown did. He hit up favor-seeking special interests for tons of campaign money he didn't need by any stretch of rationalization.
His token Republican reelection opposition, Neel Kashkari, was not competitive. As a powerful governor and cinch winner, Brown could raise money from political investors without asking above a whisper.
One such incident has been well-reported. Occurring toward the end of the campaign season, it symbolized how politics is played and what's wrong with the system.
A prominent Sacramento lobbying firm solicited $5,000 each from roughly 35 special interest clients for Brown's political account. At the time, Brown had about $21 million in the bank and was tapping little of it for his reelection jog.
The governor, however, was spending a few million promoting two ballot propositions: a waterworks bond and a budget reserve requirement. "We're talking about an unprecedented act of selflessness," campaign spokesman Dan Newman told me, not keeping a straight face. The TV ads featuring Brown helped sell not only the props but the governor's reelection.
Still, Newman confirmed, roughly $20 million remained in Brown's kitty after election day.
Why raise money he doesn't need? He can't use it to run for federal office such as the U.S. Senate or — shame on me for even suggesting — president.
Brown has said that he may need the stash to bankroll some future unspecified ballot prop.
But, truthfully, too many politicians just feel more comfy being surrounded by money. It's a matter of honor and pride — and insulation from unforeseen political assaults. Gov. Gray Davis' recall is still a fresh nightmare.
Brown told Times reporters Seema Mehta and Michael Finnegan last month that "having a credible war chest will overcome whatever infirmities lame-duck governors might ordinarily suffer from."
Don't threaten me. I'm fully armed.
"He wants to raise the money while he has the power," Stern says. "Every year that goes by, he has less power. So now's the time to raise it."
But why would a donor give to a politician who doesn't need the money? Silly question.
"We don't necessarily ask candidates, 'Are you sure you need the money and will you use it wisely?'" says lobbyist John Latimer, who heads the firm Capitol Advocacy, which organized the $5,000-a-head fundraiser. "We support the governor and his agenda."
But what if the governor spends the money on something not in the donors' best interests? "Once the money is given, whatever he does with it, we have to accept that," Latimer says. "Certainly we can't be sure of anything."
But in Sacramento or Washington, one can be sure that fair-sized donations will buy access, an ear and maybe more.
The exact amount donated by Latimer's clients hasn't yet been reported. But figure around $175,000.
The invitations for "a private reception and sit down conversation with Gov. Jerry Brown" went out in early October. Capitol Advocacy has dozens of clients, including PepsiCo, T-Mobile, United Healthcare, Fox Entertainment Group and Comcast.
The sit-down with Brown occurred Monday at a popular Sacramento restaurant, Mulvaney's, walking distance from the governor's loft. But the cheap governor didn't pop for dinner — only munchies and drinks. What do you expect for $5K?
Reporters were barred, of course, and Brown slipped in and out a back door to avoid the pesky newsies. So we don't know what was conversed about.
"He's a fascinating person, really interested in lots of things," Latimer says. "We talked about big-picture stuff, his view of California and the world….
"We don't feel terribly hit up by the governor. He raises his funds, and we're happy to help."
Remember the paradox here: Business interests funding a Democratic governor.
"It's about access and influence," says Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in political funding. "It strains common sense to believe that in giving they won't want something in return."
"It's pretty depressing," Levinson adds, "that this is the way we do business in every state capitol and city hall in America. Large donors call the tune and have enormous influence. Members of the public who can't give big donations don't play as large a role in representative democracy.
"It's very discouraging and dispiriting."
Brown and well-heeled interests are playing the game under rules written by the politicians and the courts. It's a stacked game. And nobody is playing it better than Brown.