California consumers are rarely blessed with a moment’s peace. On the Internet, marketers are in hot pursuit of our every click. In the home, tele-interrupters stalk us by phone. Even at the supermarket produce bin, our gazes come under siege by e-commerce pitchmen who have cleverly discerned that we examine the bananas we buy, hence the ads the size of Chiquita stickers. All this, plus frauds and scams.
As the secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency, Aileen Adams is the premier consumer-protection go-to official in state government. She says she reads as many consumer complaint letters as she can and responds to many of them. A lawyer and longtime crime victims’ advocate, Adams was one of the first high-level appointments made by Gov. Gray Davis. Although not a household name, this graduate of Howard University Law School has made marks around the Golden State for nearly three decades. In the late 1980s, Adams and her husband, Geoffrey Cowan, now dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, spent summers with their kids motoring throughout the Central Valley as owners of the Stockton Ports minor-league team. Their travels left Adams with an affinity for the valley, a connection that comes in handy as she chairs the governor’s “Red Team” (for cutting through bureaucratic red tape), a coordinated push by state agencies to get the new UC Merced campus off the drawing board.
But her roots are deepest in the Los Angeles Basin, where her family, including son Gabriel, 26, and daughter Mandy, 17, is anchored. She was legal counsel to the rape-treatment center at Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center from 1982 to 1994, spearheading important reforms. One, the removal of a victim-resistance standard in the California rape law, meant that women who for reasons of fear did not resist an attack were no longer assumed to have legally consented to the assault. Adams was also a L.A. fire commissioner and a deputy city attorney under Burt Pines.
Most recently, she was in Washington, appointed by President Bill Clinton to direct the Office for Victims of Crime. It was there, under the influence of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, that she solidified her “very simple leadership principles”: to be customer-focused, to view the system through the eyes of the consumer, to make government accessible and to listen and respond.
In the state capital, Adams has plenty on her plate vying for her attention. She oversees a mind-boggling 15,000 state employees, 12 departments and an operating budget of $1.3 billion. On top of consumer protection, she is responsible for the state’s end of school construction, civil-rights-law enforcement, state real-estate development, collection of state income taxes, crime-victim services, state building codes and state museums in Los Angeles. The governor has tapped Adams to head up some of his pet projects, such as launching the UC Merced campus, getting an official governor’s residence built and shepherding the Capitol East End Project in Sacramento, the largest construction complex ever undertaken in the history of California state government. Last week, her name came up as a possible replacement for Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, who resigned facing misconduct allegations. All this adds up to a job for someone not easily overwhelmed. On a recent afternoon, Adams spoke of her mandate and approach in an interview in her Sacramento office.
Question: With such broad oversight responsibilities, and so many agencies to oversee, what concrete benefit can you offer to consumers?
Answer: We’ve had round tables with consumers around the state to bring government to the people and respond to their concerns and needs. Part of our focus has been the new crimes that occur as a result of the Internet, identifying them for consumers and providing the information they need to fight back. Peoples’ identities are being stolen over the Internet because so much information is accessible for the first time. In fact, to show how pervasive identity crimes are, not only do they occur at a rate of about 1,000 a day, but the director of the Department of Consumer Affairs herself became the victim of an identity crime and is still dealing with collection agencies because someone set up credit cards in her name.
Q: What can you, or the agencies under you, do to fight Internet-related crimes directly?
A: We are taking four steps: One, to declare consumer protection in the information arena an established priority for the Department of Consumer Affairs. Two, we’ve issued fact sheets with “dos” and “don’ts” for consumers getting into e-commerce and information about what to do if they are defrauded. Three, we’ve convened an interagency task force to identify the gaps and consumer needs and internal policy issues. And, we are reviewing a lot of new legislation to crack down on these new crimes. These are cutting-edge issues, such as the legal status of digital signatures.
Q: What else are you hearing from consumers?
A: We’re hearing about these new crimes and how we need a stepped-up effort to arrest criminals. We’re hearing frustration that white-collar crime victims are treated differently from victims of violent crime. As someone who’s been involved with both groups, it’s hard to differentiate between someone who’s been robbed on the street or robbed by a telemarketer scam. Yet, all the rights and much of the resources go to victims of violent crime; the senior who may have lost everything in a scam often doesn’t have the same rights and doesn’t receive the same kind of services.
Q: What’s the remedy?
A: This is an area in which prosecutors can make a difference by trying to make the white-collar-crime victims part of the process. It’s also a legislative issue on the state and national levels. For example, there was a move to adopt a victims’ rights constitutional amendment that would have treated white-collar-crime victims differently from violent-crime victims. I don’t think that’s a correct policy.
Q: What is the most urgent consumer-protection issue facing your agency?
A: This goes outside the traditional notion, but making all government accessible to people is the most important consumer-protection challenge. I have 15,000 people who work for me. When I talk to them, I give them two messages. One, you can forget all the rules and regulations if you just remember one thing, and that is: Treat every customer as though he or she were your mother, your father, your son, your daughter or yourself. That ought to be the standard for everyone.
Q: That is an unusual directive.
A: The other thing important to remember in government is that, for so many, we are really a lifeline. [Consumers] wouldn’t take the time to write us unless they’ve exhausted all other remedies. It is that one individual who has the courage to come forward, who takes the time to write in a complaint, who is the basis for much of what is good in public policy. That was certainly true when I worked at the rape-treatment center. It was that one victim who was the last one on the bus, locked in by the bus driver and who couldn’t get off, went into a state of frozen fright and was incapable of resisting, who came to the rape-treatment center. It was her case that led to our proposing, and the Legislature passing unanimously, the victim-resistance provision in the California rape law.
Q: In your public speeches and remarks, you talk about Gandhi.
A: “We must be the change we want to see in the world.”
Q: What in that Gandhi quote appeals to you?
A: If we really want to make a big difference, it takes all of us coming together. I’ve been affected in almost a spiritual way by crime victims. One was this wonderful man from East Los Angeles whose son had been killed by a gang member. I’ll never forget what he said: “‘I gave everything to my son. I helped him with his schoolwork, I played with him after school so he could become a great basketball player. He was a straight-A student, a varsity basketball player. But I forgot about one thing. I forgot about all the other kids.”
Q: Although you have no direct authority over insurance issues, what lessons can we learn from Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush’s problems?
A: The way in which the victims of the Northridge earthquake were handled is the very antithesis of what government should be. You have thousands of victims and massive fraud by some insurance companies that low-balled the amount paid to customers and didn’t inform them of their rights. The Insurance Department’s own investigators estimated they should recover at least $200 million for consumers and subject the companies to $3 billion worth of fines. . . . It’s quite unbelievable. We have companies that were fined around $12 million and were allowed to write those fines off as gifts. That is major, major consumer fraud perpetrated by a government official.
Q: What safeguards would have led to a different outcome?
A: I don’t think [the insurance commissioner’s office] followed the basic principle of government: You listen to people, you help and if they’ve been defrauded, you get them restitution. You treat them like a family member. It’s as simple as that. None of those things happened. The opposite happened.
Q: As chair of the governor’s Red Team to smooth the way for construction of the UC Merced campus, how do you plan to handle growing concerns over its reported detrimental environmental effects?
A: We’ve addressed the central environmental issue, which is the vernal pools and the fairy shrimp, an endangered species that lives in the pools. This area, or easements, was to have been acquired by the state over the next 10 years. We are speeding up that process, so that the fairy shrimp [and] . . . the vernal pools will be preserved. We’re prepared to buy easements on about 60,000 acres by working with the Nature Conservancy.
Q: One of your many areas of responsibility is overseeing public-school construction. How would you go about ensuring there will no repeat of the Belmont Learning Complex fiasco?
A: We have advocated a one-stop shop for school construction, in which we identify all the possible government entities with which a school might have to interact. There are more than 40 of them. They had never been identified [and] . . . never been brought together. . . . One of my top priorities is helping to build a K-5 science-math school in Exposition Park, which also falls under our agency. We have an opportunity with the California Science Center, . . . the Natural History Museum and the California African American Museum to build a school next door to . . . all these museums, and to establish a teacher-training center.
Q: You’ve talked about the value of government constructing great buildings, with formidable and lasting architectural quality.
A: This is another of my major priorities. [With schools], we know that the building itself is an important tool for learning. As we build more state office buildings, we need to recognize that we can build beautiful buildings for the same cost as it takes to build an ugly one. . . . Go into the Junipero Serra Building we completed in downtown Los Angeles. You walk in, there’s poetry on the walls, every elevator has a wonderful etching on it. . . . We are about to build the largest state building project in the history of the state at the east end of the Capitol. Instead of leasing space, we’ll be consolidating people in one place, which will make government more efficient and less expensive. Building beautiful new buildings can be very cost effective.
Q: What would you consider your successes so far?
A: My ability to forge new partnerships among diverse state agencies. Also, my ability to add the two ingredients that are most lacking in government programs: putting our customers first, and seeing the system through the eyes of someone who’s worked as an advocate outside of government.
Q: Is your job too big?
A: I would say no. The governor has named extraordinarily experienced people to head my departments and, as an administrator, I help them set goals and policy. I think the real key is finding top-notch people to work with you.