Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger paid two of his most trusted aides a total of $33,000 in reelection campaign money in addition to their state salaries -- meaning insurers, HMOs and other special interests that depend on government action were boosting the pay of his senior employees.
Adam Mendelsohn, the governor’s communications director, received a total of $13,000 in October and November as extra payment for the hours devoted to Schwarzenegger’s reelection bid, according to the governor’s office. Mendelsohn earns a taxpayer-financed salary of $123,000.
Clay Russell, the governor’s personal assistant who frequently travels with him, was paid $20,000 in campaign money between July and October, in addition to a state salary of $85,000, records show.
Before Schwarzenegger took office in 2003, California governors seldom used campaign money for such purposes.
But Schwarzenegger has routinely tapped the $114 million he has collected from private donors to ensure that several of his most valued aides are well compensated for their political work. Some lawmakers and watchdog groups want to see him end the practice.
At issue is whether government aides can work in California’s best interests when a chunk of their pay is coming from campaign donors pressing for state contracts or favorable regulatory rulings.
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said in an interview, “It’s a practice that should be abandoned. This is public service. In the minds of the donors, when they’re giving to the governor, are they giving to his campaign or are they giving to get access -- so that staff member continues opening doors for them long after the election has passed?”
Worried about the appearance of a conflict of interest, Schwarzenegger over the summer barred his staff from accepting gifts from special interests. Under the strict new rules, gubernatorial aides are not permitted to accept even a cup of coffee from business interests.
But Schwarzenegger is not preventing the same interests from boosting government salaries.
Last year, Schwarzenegger paid three former aides -- Chief of Staff Patricia Clarey, Legislative Secretary Richard Costigan and Communications Director Rob Stutzman -- $5,000 a month each from campaign funds.
Records show that Susan Kennedy, the governor’s current chief of staff, has received the most generous level of campaign pay since her hiring a year ago: $92,500 on top of her $131,000 state salary.
In an interview early in the year, Kennedy said she needed the extra money to pay her mortgage, among other expenses.
“Susan Kennedy, Adam Mendelsohn and Clay Russell -- in addition to fulfilling their responsibilities in their government positions -- worked tremendous hours in the mornings, evenings and weekends on the campaign and were compensated for their time,” said Julie Soderlund, a spokeswoman for the governor.
State law holds that public employees are permitted to receive campaign stipends -- provided the political work is not done on state time.
In an attempt to keep campaign and state business separate, Mendelsohn frequently traveled with two BlackBerry devices -- one devoted to campaign e-mails, the other to state.
But one expert on ethics issues questioned whether that gesture solves the problem.
“Two BlackBerrys or not, what happens when his political BlackBerry goes off while he’s sitting in his government-paid office, in his government building?” said Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, a nonpartisan group that examines ethics and character issues.
A better approach might be for government aides to take a leave of absence during political seasons, Josephson said. Even if aides diligently keep political and government work separate, devoting so many hours to both may detract from their performance on the state’s behalf, he added.
When you get a substantial increment in salary like that, Josephson said, “you have to assume he’s being paid for a substantial number of hours. So does that indicate this guy is working an 80-hour week? Is he fresh to do his government work? Is that healthy? Or wise?”
A survey of previous California governors showed that only on rare occasions did state aides collect a campaign salary.
Former Govs. Gray Davis, George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown barred the practice entirely.
During his 1994 reelection campaign, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson paid a campaign salary to his chief of staff, Bob White.
Early in his term, Schwarzenegger himself was getting paid by private sources. He had contracted to be a consultant and editor for the tabloid and fitness magazine publisher, American Media, Inc. Schwarzenegger gave up the job -- which paid an estimated $8 million over five years -- in 2005 after the details of the arrangement became public.