Funds Meant for Kids Need Minding

Let's be candid about the controversy over whether film director Rob Reiner misspent public funds by raiding the child-development program created by his last ballot initiative, Proposition 10, for cash to promote his new Preschool for All ballot initiative.

Reiner's not the only one taking advantage.

The supervisory standards set up by Proposition 10 in 1998 are scandalously lax. The program uses income from a tobacco surtax, including 50 cents per pack of cigarettes, to fund health, welfare and educational services for children up to age 5 -- things like immunization and preschool.

But it has become a feeding trough for people flogging pet projects and for outside consultants of every stripe.

Proposition 10 bestowed a total lack of accountability on the bodies it established to disburse the money -- the state Children and Families Commission (headed by Reiner until he took a leave of absence Feb. 24) and 58 county entities, known as "First5" commissions.

The initiative failed to provide guidance on rudimentary issues such as conflicts of interest, competitive bidding or how success should be measured. And each commission was given the responsibility to audit itself.

The sums involved aren't trivial. The tobacco levy has produced $4 billion to date. Of this haul, 20% goes to the state commission. The rest is apportioned to the county commissions according to each county's share of statewide live births.

For an example of how individual commissions disburse this money, let's look at Orange County, the second-largest First5 in the state (after Los Angeles), which receives about $40 million a year. Its vice chairman, the right-wing political pundit Hugh Hewitt, is Reiner's most vocal and persistent critic.

Back in 2003, the commission awarded a no-bid, $250,000 annual contract to a consulting firm called the White House Writers Group. What is this outfit, you ask? It's a Washington-based gang mostly comprising former speechwriters and staff members in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. It was proposed for the contract by Hugh Hewitt, himself a former Reagan White House staffer and a personal friend of one of its principals.

Hewitt says he recommended the firm, which is essentially a high-powered PR outfit, to help the commission rectify what had become "four years of limited success in establishing the partnerships we need [in Washington] in the national health and philanthropy communities." Whether the contract will put a single vaccine in a child's arm he doesn't say; I only know that $250,000 a year would buy a lot of vaccines.

Hewitt also says: "I don't know and have never inquired about the political affiliation" of the firm's partners and staff. Leaving aside the fatuous suggestion that a conservative Republican with his background could be unaware of the partisan coloration of such an obvious GOP nest, he doesn't have to "inquire." It's trumpeted loudly on the firm's website.

Hewitt observes that the OC commission also employs former Democratic assemblyman Phil Isenberg as its lobbyist in Sacramento, as though to prove that the commission is an equal-opportunity political piggy bank.

This got me thinking: Why in heaven's name does a county commission, with a guaranteed revenue stream and representation in the capital by the statewide First5 commission and by a separate association of county First5 commissions, need its own Sacramento lobbyist?

Hewitt says it's to keep the Legislature "mindful of the difference between the state commission and the local initiatives."

What's the cost of teaching legislators the difference between "state" and "county"? Since 2002, the OC commission has paid Isenberg's current and former lobbying firms $340,762. That would probably cover the wages of a few school nurses.

Finally, let's consider the OC commission's featured new health initiative. This is an avian flu preparedness program, to which it allocated $2.3 million in November. Orange County is the only First5 commission that has established such a program, according to its executive director, Michael Ruane.

As it happens, the avian flu is an issue dear to the particular heart of Hugh Hewitt, who writes incessantly on his weblog about the imminent threat of an avian flu pandemic. Hewitt acknowledges that he "urged the Commission to consider and adopt" the avian flu plan. Reading between the lines, it sounds like his baby.

But at the moment, a large-scale threat to human health from the avian flu is entirely conjectural. Though the virus is spreading rapidly from Asia outward (it hasn't reached North or South America), the threat is still largely to birds and, to a much smaller degree, farmers and other humans who come in direct contact with the infected animals.

The few known cases of human-to-human transmission -- a prerequisite for a pandemic -- resulted from extremely close contact with an infected person, such as between mother and child. Experts say the virus would have to mutate to become freely transmissible among humans, and although they don't rule out the possibility, it hasn't happened. The federal Centers for Disease Control don't even recommend that Americans avoid travel to affected regions.

Hewitt defends the program by arguing that children will be "among the most vulnerable groups to the deadly virus." But that can be said about almost any transmissible disease. Hewitt doesn't explain why he believes that federal, state and local authorities will be so overmatched by the avian flu that the First5 commission, which has countless other ways to spend its money, needs to step up to the plate.

The irony is that spending on consultants and pet projects like these sends conservatives bouncing off the ceiling when they catch liberals at it. A Wall Street Journal editorial Hewitt quotes approvingly in his weblog commented pointedly, citing the Los Angeles Times, that First5 money "has found its way into the bank accounts of public relations and advertising firms, some of which are run by friends of Mr. Reiner."

But sweetheart deals and personal hobbyhorses that divert money from children's programs know no partisan boundaries. How are the friends of Mr. Hewitt doing?

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and view his web log at latimes.com/goldenstateblog.

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