Hollywood producer Rob Reiner resigned Wednesday as chairman of a state commission he founded seven years ago to aid children, amid accusations that the commission used tax money to boost his new political campaign.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named Hector Ramirez to the unpaid post heading the First 5 California Children and Families Commission. Ramirez is chief operating officer of Para Los Ninos, a $16-million-a-year nonprofit organization that serves poor children in Southern California, and will remain in that job.
"Rob Reiner has always put California's kids first, and I thank him for the great work he has done over the last seven years," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "Because of Rob's efforts, California has become a national leader in providing early childhood health and education services for our youngest children and their families."
Reiner initially resisted stepping down, declaring that he had done nothing wrong. But he changed his position as he campaigned for his latest initiative, Proposition 82, a measure on the June ballot that would raise income taxes on wealthy Californians to pay for preschool for 4-year-olds.
Foes of the initiative, seeking to capitalize on Reiner's predicament, had taken to calling their campaign "Stop Reiner."
"We've seen first hand how the opposition campaign to Proposition 82 is being run. It is being run against Rob, not against preschool," said Reiner spokesman Mark Fabiani, a veteran Democratic strategist. "The issue is too important to be mired in this kind of political sideshow."
Reiner phoned Schwarzenegger over the weekend to discuss his status.
In a letter of resignation to the governor dated Wednesday, the producer said the two "agreed that we cannot let personal political attacks get in the way of doing the very best we can for California's children."
Reiner had taken a leave of absence in February after The Times detailed how the First 5 commission oversaw a $23-million television, radio and newspaper ad blitz this winter touting the benefits of preschool. Those ads appeared as Reiner launched the campaign for the "Preschool for All" Proposition 82 campaign.
Additionally, the commission awarded $230 million in public relations and advertising contracts to two firms that had worked to pass Proposition 10, the Reiner-sponsored 1998 initiative that raised tobacco taxes by $600 million a year to create the First 5 program and fund early childhood health and education programs.
Reiner was unavailable for comment.
The resignation could aid Schwarzenegger, who had drawn rancor from fellow Republicans over his hesitation to oust his longtime friend. Reiner's departure is expected to have no effect on the work of the First 5 panel disbursing the tobacco tax funds.
At the behest of a legislative committee, the Bureau of State Audits is preparing to embark on a broad audit of First 5, and Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Jan Skully has opened a preliminary inquiry.
"The issue doesn't go away," said state Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), who called for the audit and delivered a letter to the governor last month signed by all 14 Senate Republicans urging that Schwarzenegger dump Reiner. "There are questions about procurement. First 5 used taxpayer dollars to fund political programs, which is frankly illegal."
Reiner has said he welcomes the audit. He has said that he exempted himself from decisions related to the winter ad campaign and that the contracts were awarded in accord with state law.
Gov. Gray Davis appointed Reiner as First 5 chairman in 1999. Reiner's term had since expired, but Schwarzenegger had not moved to replace him. As recently as last week, Schwarzenegger had said he would not oust Reiner even though the governor had criticized the First 5 commission's use of tax money for the television ads promoting preschool.
"For seven years, I have volunteered as the chairperson of First 5 California, and I am proud of all that we have accomplished," Reiner said in his letter. "We have touched the lives of over 3.4 million children across the state, from providing health insurance to preschool to parent education information to prenatal services."
Last week Reiner retained Fabiani, a onetime aide to President Clinton and the late Mayor Tom Bradley. Fabiani and his business partner, Chris Lehane, have built a reputation by providing clients with crisis communication management.
Fabiani would not say whether he recommended that Reiner step down.
But he said his client's decision "makes it much harder for the [Proposition 82] opponents to focus on Rob. And hopefully it will force the campaign debate back to where it should be: Is preschool for kids a good idea or a bad idea."
Some Democratic legislators also criticized the tax-funded ad program, and some are opposing Proposition 82.
But some have also come to Reiner's defense.
"We appreciate someone like Rob Reiner spending so much time in public service," said Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch).
Reiner's replacement had been a children's social worker for the L.A. County Department of Social Services. Ramirez, 38, is a Democrat from La Mirada.
"I was just minding my own business, and I got a call from the governor's office over the weekend," he said. "You go from the weekend and thinking about 'I've got to do my laundry' to all of a sudden I'm flying up to meet the governor."
Ramirez said he was not versed in the current controversy over First 5. But he added: "I come from a nonprofit that has the highest level of integrity with respect to fiscal management. My intent is to ensure that the commission upholds the highest level of integrity."
In a statement, Schwarzenegger cited Ramirez's "long-standing passion for helping children."
Para Los Ninos has received $613,000 from the state First 5 commission, and $2.7 million from the Los Angeles County First 5 commission dating to 2001. Among its services, the organization helps children living in and around skid row. Ramirez has been involved in efforts to improve the area.
Kathryn Icenhower, executive director of Shields for Families, a South Los Angeles community group, said she had worked with Ramirez for many years.
"Our mission and vision are very similar to each other, and I know if Hector is involved in something, he will bring integrity, commitment and passion," she said.
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas, Carla Rivera and Evelyn Larrubia contributed to this report.