By the end of last week, it was evident that movie director/initiative promoter Rob Reiner was in very hot political water. The California State Auditor investigation of his California Children and Families Commission, previously not scheduled, was now imminent, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office continued its review, his Proposition 82 universal preschool initiative was in trouble in the polls, his friend Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was pressured by the controversy and involvement of his associates with the commission, and Reiner, hardly a man bereft of public relations counsel, was attempting to hire several high-powered PR and lobbying pros.
I spoke with California State Auditor Elaine Howle late last week and she said her office’s investigation of the Reiner created and led agency would begin soon. About two weeks from now, as it happens. This despite the fact that the motion to expedite the investigation, to place it highest in the queue of authorized investigation, fell short at the Joint Legislative Audit Committee meeting on March 8th when Schwarzenegger running mate Tom McClintock, an expected vote, was absent.
“The audit is clearly important,” said Howle. Important enough to move ahead of an audit of University of California financial practices. Once begun in mid-April, the audit will take four months.
“I expect to finish in August,” the state auditor said. “I don’t see that as a problem.” Finishing in August will allow time for legislative hearings on the Auditor’s findings.
She described the audit as having a very expansive reach, looking through the commission’s activities from 2004 on.
Meanwhile, private polling showed Reiner’s preschool initiative in danger of failing, hovering just over 50 percent in support, a perilously low level for a complex ballot measure with major fiscal implications. Prop 82 would impose an income tax surcharge on high income Californians to fund a strictly defined statewide preschool program. This despite the fact that no advertising had been run against the initiative. Reiner himself had become highly controversial. The imminent investigation by the California State Auditor would focus attention on him — and his refusal to resign from his expired term on the commission — even further.
Reiner sought more public relations help. Although his commission already had very pricey PR help from its contracted firm, the Rogers Group, headed by Reiner family friend Ron Rogers, and he also had PR counsel from several of his longtime political operatives and the newly hired Acosta Salazar firm, Reiner thought more was needed.
He hired Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, known as the so-called “Masters of Disaster” for their specialty in damage control PR. Fabiani is best known for his work in the White House as special counsel to President Bill Clinton on the Whitewater scandal.
According to several sources, Reiner also tried to hire a public affairs firm known for strong connections within state government and the Legislature, California Strategies, headed by longtime Governor Pete Wilson chief of staff Bob White, who also headed up Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial transition team. California Strategies did not take the job.
Reiner had put his friend Schwarzenegger on the spot, testing their Hollywood friendship by his refusal to finally step away from the commission, where his term had actually expired in 2004. His half-measure of taking a leave of absence had clearly and predictably failed. So over the past weekend, he spoke with the governor and made clear his intention to resign. The former action superstar agreed to replace Reiner with a Reiner associate, Hector Ramirez, chief operating officer of the highly respected Los Angeles family service organization, Para Los Ninos.
The Proposition 82 campaign was launched at an event outside Para Los Ninos. Ramirez served on the executive committee of the First 5 LA’s Preschool For All Initiative, which was, as I reported earlier, Reiner and First 5′s initial attempt to institute a publicly-funded universal preschool program and served as a model for Prop 82. After it was discovered that the Prop 10 tobacco tax money was inadequate for the task, Reiner’s thoughts turned to a new statewide initiative to fund Preschool For All at the state level. That initiative is now Prop 82.
With those ties, the appointment may prove problematic politically for Schwarzenegger. But Reiner, an enormous public lightning rod, had removed himself from the commission.
His resignation, of course, ends nothing other than the drama over his tenure with the agency he created through his Proposition 10 cigarette tax initiative of 1998. In fact, I’ve learned that the investigation may even broaden somewhat over the already expansive probe described by State Auditor Elaine Howle.
Today, I’m told, the two legislators who formally requested the probe, state Senator Dave Cox, a Sacramento area Republican, and Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer, a Los Angeles area Democrat, will ask Howle to go back to 2002 in some areas of commission activity. Among other things, possible promotion of a later scrapped California Teachers Association-backed initiative to institute a split roll property tax would be looked at. Reiner’s “Masters of Disaster” will earn their money.