First of Two Parts.
Last July, seven months after stepping down as a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority board, Curt Pringle sent an email to Darrell Johnson, the agency's deputy CEO.
“I am doing a little work with ATN — Anaheim Transportation Network,” Pringle wrote. “I would like to sit down with you and Diana Kotler, the ATN Executive Director, to discuss what service areas out there today and in the future there might be for ATN to be engaged with.”
It was a dicey proposition. The state's revolving door law made it illegal for Pringle to lobby his old colleague on behalf of a client until a year after Pringle left the OCTA. But Pringle knew the law, and he exercised caution in crafting the email by including a carefully worded disclaimer.
“I am very aware of the restrictions I have and am unable to 'advocate' to you regarding any 'administrative or legislative action.' Therefore, I certainly wouldn’t. But I think it might be good to hear where OCTA is on station link services, GO Local programs and other areas that ATN should be aware of.”
A few months after Pringle, Johnson and Kotler met for breakfast, ATN — a small transit agency that provides transportation for Anaheim's resort district — submitted a proposal to develop an OCTA alternative transit program known as rideshare. The transportation network was awarded an $185,000 contract, and Pringle's public affairs firm — Curt Pringle and Associates — received a $37,000 subcontract.
The situation raises red flags with Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and author of the state's conflict of interest code. “The way I was reading it [the email] is he wanted to enter into a contract with them [OCTA],” Stern said.
If that was the case, then Pringle has violated the state's revolving door law, Stern said. But the law is narrow, Stern cautioned, and Pringle would have violated it only if he had lobbied Johnson for a specific contract.
“It raises questions about what happened at the meeting and the contract in question,” Stern said.
Regardless of whether Pringle broke the letter of the law, his dealings with Johnson and Kotler are indicative of how one of Orange County's most powerful players, who as recently as 2010 was simultaneously a board member at OCTA, mayor of Anaheim and chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, has remained very much in the thick of the public's business even after officially leaving public office.
Did He or Didn't He?
While the purpose of Pringle's presence at the breakfast meeting clearly was to represent ATN's interests, Pringle, Kotler and Johnson all say that Pringle didn't break the law because he didn't actually talk about the contract during the meeting.
“I think it's important that transportation agencies — that each knew what they were doing,” Pringle said. “I have never lobbied for a contract at OCTA.”
Johnson also denies that Pringle lobbied during the meeting. The three met to talk about “two specific things,” he said, including an OCTA transit system study and the Go Local program, a plan to link city transit to OCTA's Metrolink rail line.
And Johnson said he had no idea OCTA would be sending out a request for proposals for rideshare consulting services just two months after the meeting.
The Anaheim Transportation Network is relatively new, he said, and the meeting was a chance to learn about ATN. “Suggesting any type of meeting would have any kind of influence on a contract with ATN is just completely false,” Johnson said. “You can't connect the dots, there's nothing to connect.”
Kotler also described the meeting as just an introduction. “We were discussing very broadly how the two agencies could work together,” Kotler said.
However, Kotler did acknowledge that her agency hired Pringle to represent its interests. “I wouldn't call it [lobbying],” Kotler said. “That is the board's choice on how to best ensure we're … let's just call it best represented.”
ATN hired Pringle's firm last May, contract documents show, and his duties make it clear he is the organization's lobbyist. “We will represent the interests of the ATN before regulatory and policy bodies when appropriate,” the contract reads. The firm is also to contact “key decision makers to gain support for the ATN's short and long term goals.”
The contract also says that special attention would be paid to “the elected leaders and staff in the City of Anaheim.”
However, the contract also contains a disclaimer that places an asterisk on those promises, and, in the case of Anaheim, seems to reverse them.
“You should be aware that our company policy prevents members of our firm from communicating in an attempt to influence legislative or administrative action on behalf of any client with the city of Anaheim and the Orange County Transportation Authority until December 8, 2011,” the contract reads.
“The contract was entered into with the full understanding of revolving door restrictions,” Pringle said.
The Cooling-Off Period
The intent of the 2005 law, according to a legislative analysis, is to "address situations whereby former elected officers and other officials return to represent clients who have business before or are seeking to influence policy decisions made by their former agencies."
The law forbids lobbying of former colleagues for 12 months after leaving office. But opinions are divided on whether this “cooling-off period” should be required.
“Quite frankly, I don't think the one-year rule should apply,” said pollster and Republican insider Adam Probolsky.
Probolsky argues that defining a lobbyist can be difficult, and he says that former elected officials have the First Amendment right to free speech.
“I'm not saying it's impossible. I'm just saying the consequence of preventing people who were once in government I think is dangerous and probably illegal,” Probolsky said. “There's such a thing as political speech — and it's the highest form of speech.”
State Senator Lou Correa (D- Santa Ana) feels differently. Correa introduced legislation last year that expanded the revolving door law to include appointed members to local governing boards.
“You exercise and commanded a certain level of power, therefore in order to not have undue influence in that organization you should stay away for a year,” Correa said. “As a citizen of this country, I still believe in democracy and the right of citizens [to] one vote [per] person. I believe all of us should have equal access to government.”
Tomorrow: Pringle remains “master” of his universe.