Like kissing babies and shaking hands, politicians view speech making as a time-honored part of political life, something that just goes with the territory.
But Gov. George Deukmejian, breaking with California chief executives of the past, has discovered along with a growing number of state lawmakers and other officials that public speaking also can be profitable.
During his last three years in office, Deukmejian has supplemented his $49,100 annual state salary with $22,500 collected from groups interested in the prestige a governor can bring as a keynote speaker.
However, unlike many lawmakers who commonly take large speaking fees from influential groups with matters pending before them, Deukmejian has carefully limited his paid appearances to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.
Defending the practice as “entirely appropriate,” Larry Thomas, the governor’s campaign director and former press secretary, said it was “a question of appearances” that prompted Deukmejian to reject many paid speaking invitations from various special interests.
Yet, while there has never been a prohibition against paid speech making by elected officials, Deukmejian’s practice is a clear departure from governors of the recent past.
Associates of former governors Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Ronald Reagan say they cannot remember a single instance in which those chief executives accepted a fee for a public speech while in office.
“Honorariums didn’t have anything to do with whether a speech invitation was accepted,” said one former Reagan aide, who asked not to be identified. “The criteria was always whether it could do him any good politically.”
Richard Steffen, former press secretary to the younger Brown, said his boss routinely turned down paid speaking invitations because “he didn’t feel it was right.”
“The people elected him and when he was going places in a official capacity, he didn’t feel he should be paid for it,” Steffen said. He added, however, that a California governor “doesn’t make a heck of a lot relative to his position.”
Nearly 100 of the Legislature’s 40 senators and 80 assemblymen supplemented their $33,732 state salaries with an estimated $550,000 in speech making fees last year. That was $200,000 more than they collected in 1984 and nine times the total of just five years ago.
Many holders of statewide office also have joined the trend, led by state Treasurer Jesse M. Unruh, who reported receiving $42,400 last year in speaking fees, an amount that virtually matched his $42,500 state salary. Much of the speech income came from groups with a stake in California’s multibillion-dollar bond business. Criticism over similar practices among federal officials triggered a reform movement in Congress in the mid-1970s that resulted in a strict limit on income from speaking fees coupled with an increase in congressional salaries.
In California, elected officials may earn income from any legitimate outside source provided that the money is reported annually to the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who routinely earns more from speech making than any other member of the Assembly, has introduced legislation that would limit speaking fees for legislators but would have no effect on the governor or other constitutional officers. The bill is awaiting its first committee vote.
Deukmejian’s outside income became an issue last week when he released his 1985 tax returns. The returns showed a $229 penalty for underestimating taxes on $12,000 received from four speaking engagements.
An aide to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who is campaigning for a gubernatorial rematch with Deukmejian, said Bradley generally turns down speaking fees, particularly when the event is held in Los Angeles. “He just doesn’t choose to do it,” said campaign press aide Dee Dee Myers.
However, Bradley did accept $2,500 last year for a speech at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a $750 speaking fee in connection with a 1983 commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta, according to statements filed with the state.
Focus on Education
All of Deukmejian’s speaking fees last year came from educational institutions, including two colleges and a prep school that were once attended by Steven Merksamer, the governor’s chief of staff. Merksamer insisted, however, that he had nothing to do with soliciting the invitations from any of the schools he once attended.
Jack Osborn, spokesman for Claremont McKenna College, where Deukmejian received $5,000 for a speech to an organization of college donors, said the governor was offered the same fee given to other speakers and “it’s his choice to take the honorarium or not.”
Deukmejian’s fourth paid speech was given during homecoming week at the University of Redlands. The speech, for which Deukmejian was paid $3,000, was arranged by an alumnus and former law partner of the governor.
Elizabeth Konold, the university’s director of annual giving who coordinated the governor’s visit, said she suggested the $3,000 honorarium in a conversation with the alumnus who agreed to arrange the speech. “I asked, is an honorarium considered appropriate in this case and the response was, ‘Yes, it is,’ ” Konold said, adding that speakers such as Henry Kissinger command fees ranging as high as $20,000.
A Routine Matter
Merksamer said speaking fees are offered to officials on a “routine basis.”
“It’s not in the nature of (the governor’s) regular duties to speak to a graduating exercise,” Merksamer said, adding that Deukmejian insists that his appointees also refuse speaking fees from any profit-making organization or group that does business with the state.
Thomas, noting that Deukmejian “could legitimately” accept fees from any speaking engagement, said he does not believe the public would have any objection to a governor accepting money from nonprofit groups.
“I don’t see anything at all that would give anyone a basis to begrudge the governor,” Thomas said.
DEUKMEJIAN’S PAYING SPEECHES
Gov. George Deukmejian has broken with precedent by accepting payment for some speeches before nonprofit groups. Since 1983, he has earned $22,500 in speech payments. The speeches:
Date Organization Event Amount 1983 Armenian General Athletic Union Awards ceremony $2,500 1983 American Enterprise Institute Luncheon speech $2,500 1983 Armenian Film Foundation Film narration $3,000 1984 Armenian General Benevolent Union Guest speaker $2,500 1985 Claremont McKenna College Guest speaker $5,000 1985 McGeorge Law School Commencement $2,500 1985 Robert Louis Stevenson School Commencement $1,500 1985 University of Redlands Homecoming $3,000 TOTAL $22,500