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Dirty Lungs, Dirtier Politics

We already know that the AQMD — the so-called smog police — does less than a stellar job cleaning up the air. But how many people know about the industrial quantities of political sleaze this agency pumps out on a regular basis?

While there’s lots of scrutiny being cast this week on Mayor Villaraigosa’s takeover of the school district, virtually no one is paying any attention to this other totally unaccountable public agency whose crucial mission is to defend our local air quality. Hack, hack. You think the school board sucks? Well, at least we elect those folks. By contrast, the members of the Air Quality Management District governing board — the elite group that regulates the very air we and our children breathe — are the handpicked appointees of a hodgepodge of state and local elected officials. In other words, the AQMD board is but a toxic brew of political favors, back scratching and apple-polishing. Its chairman, appropriately enough, is master political hustler William Burke, who is also the founder and operator of the lucrative and ethically dysfunctional L.A. Marathon. A supposed crusader for environmental justice and progressive voice in the African-American community, Burke, in reality, is a self-promoting, full-time walking conflict of interest and, to boot, a dramatically ineffective defender of our air.

Now we learn that in an act of classic backroom logrolling, his longtime buddy, former entertainment lawyer turned state senator Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), has, for the second time, slipped in a legislative measure that would extend Burke’s tenure as AQMD chair for yet another two years. Of course, if I were promoting Burke, I’d also do it quietly in the dead of night. The attorney who headed the newly formed Los Angeles City Ethics Commission in the 1990s and who led an investigation into money laundering of political contributions through Burke’s marathon told the Weekly a few years back, “From our perspective, Burke was as dirty as they come.”

As my colleague William J. Kelly has pointed out in these pages over the years (“Lord of the Race,” March 4, 2004), Burke’s tenure at the AQMD has been marked by growing corporate influence over the agency, a relaxation of standards and, consequently, worsening L.A. air quality. As soon as you stop coughing, you’re allowed to laugh about a guy with so many gross polluters as sponsors of his marathon being the same official who regulates our air. Kelly revealed how Burke worked behind the scenes to ease regulatory pressure on automakers to clean up motor-vehicle emissions, the No. 1 cause of air pollution in California. And despite his rhetoric as an African-American defender of the poor, he intervened on behalf of the Rev. Pat Robertson, who was attempting to reopen a shuttered oil refinery in a largely working-class Latino community in a polluted neighborhood. Around the same time, Burke also helped Robertson take over an African gold-mining concession for a piece of the action.

Burke has also had a direct hand in plumping for other failed air-cleanup programs, ranging from the flawed RECLAIM pollution-swapping program to the totally bogus car-scrapping scheme that I had the pleasure of publicly wrecking in print a decade ago.

But not to worry. Senator Murray lives to make deals. As does Burke. They both operate on the principle (their only one) of reciprocity, the fine art of backing up your political allies in return for the promise of future support. So more than Burke’s actual record, it’s his political loyalty that counts most in reappointing him.

The unscrutinized AQMD seems the perfect petri dish for breeding this culture of contempt for public interests. For we also learn this week that the wife of Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez was awarded a $125,000 contract by AQMD to organize a series of conferences on air pollution (I suppose if you can’t curb it, second best thing to do is talk about it). Núñez denies any conflict of interest, even though the Assembly is considering legislation proposed by the AQMD and even though, as speaker, he can appoint a governing board member. Indeed, Burke’s original naming to the AQMD was made by former Speaker Willie Brown.

No, there’s nothing illegal about the Núñez deal. Just sleazy. And disappointing, given that it involves the sort of rising liberal pol who built his career posing as a champion of the little guy. But Núñez has been growing up with alarming speed recently. He was a no-show for this year’s state Democratic Convention because he was too busy being feted at a Pebble Beach golf tourney by lobbyists for AT&T. Núñez, by the way, doesn’t think that was a conflict of interest either, even though he’s leading the push to approve legislation that will result in billions of dollars of new cable business for the company. Maybe his wife, in her free time, could — on a pro-bono basis — organize a couple of conferences explaining away that little conundrum.

Or maybe when the mayor’s finished taking over the schools, he could come up with a plan to seize the AQMD and finally make it publicly accountable. But don’t hold your breath. Not only because it burns your lungs to do so, but also because the mayor and Núñez are longtime best buds.


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