Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 11th-hour decision to reduce the prison sentence of Esteban Nuñez, the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, smelled of cronyism from the start. The younger Nuñez was serving a 16-year sentence for manslaughter in connection with the death of Luis Santos, a 22-year-old college student. Schwarzenegger, with little explanation, slashed the sentence to seven years just before he left office.
No one doubted that Schwarzenegger had the legal right to do so. But wasn't there an obvious and terrible conflict of interest in granting such a life-changing favor to the son of a close colleague and friend? After all, most felons don't have such high-level political connections, and they actually have to serve out the sentences they've been given. Why should Nuñez be different from the other 3,400 prisoners serving time for voluntary manslaughter?
Schwarzenegger had little to say on the subject at the time. But in an interview in Newsweek this week, he finally acknowledged that his relationship with the elder Nuñez prompted his decision. "There's criticism out there," Schwarzenegger said. "I think it's just because of our working relationship and all that. It maybe was kind of saying, 'That's why he did it.' Well, hello! I mean, of course you help a friend."
That's just about the worst possible explanation he could have given. It requires enormous chutzpah to acknowledge in such a blasé and self-satisfied way that he misused his executive clemency power — which exists to correct gross injustices — as a favor to a buddy. It's particularly galling from Schwarzenegger, who was known for being stingy when it came to clemency; during his entire tenure, he commuted only 10 sentences, of which Nuñez's was one.
Our point is not that Nuñez deserved the sentence he got. That's open for debate. On the one hand, he had no criminal record, he didn't wield the knife that killed Santos, and he may have been misled about the nature of his plea deal. On the other hand, he and his friends were apparently out looking for a fight after being kicked out of a campus frat party, and according to prosecutors, Nuñez stabbed two other victims, who survived. He also allegedly destroyed evidence after the fact.
Our point is about Schwarzenegger and his cavalier attitude about having misused his office. Political power is conferred by voters so that it can be used wisely and fairly on their behalf. It is not supposed to be used self-interestedly, or for financial or personal gain, or — well, hello, governor! — on behalf of politically connected cronies.