In the Dark

It was a contrarian headline that immediately caused a double take: ”The Utilities Generate a Thousand Points of Light.“ Really? Come again? ”Private utilities,“ John Mack, Antonia Hernandez and Angela Oh -- three prominent L.A. civil rights activists -- wrote in a commentary in last week’s Los Angeles Times, ”provide more than an essential commodity . . . They also are part of the human fabric of society, serving as active and important corporate citizens . . .“ Don‘t let the investor-owned utilities go under, the trio urged. ”The bankruptcy serum that some consumer advocates are promoting as the cure is a bad prescription,“ they opined.

Why were three of the city’s best-known advocates for the poor and the voiceless worried about the fate of companies whose combined budgets for lobbying, lawyering and publicity run into the millions annually? Why would three writers who admitted that they ”do not pretend to understand all the complexities of the state‘s ongoing energy crisis“ seem to side with the utilities against the likes of Harvey Rosenfield, the state’s most ardent foe of energy deregulation, who‘s sought to protect Californians from bearing the cost of bailing out the utilities?

These extraordinary citizens, it turns out, have an extraordinary relationship to their hometown energy giant, Southern California Edison, the crippled subsidiary of the $37 billion holding company Edison International. Between 1996, when deregulation began, and the end of 1999, the last year for which accountings are available, SCE donated $184,000 to organizations tied to the three authors. According to disclosures filed by Edison with the California Public Utilities Commission, the Los Angeles Urban League, whose president and CEO is John Mack, led the way, getting $104,930. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), headed by Antonia Hernandez, collected $45,898. The Korean American Family Services Center and the Western Justice Center Foundation, two groups Angela Oh helps guide, combined for $33,000. These financial links were not disclosed to the Times’ readers.

”I know what people are going to say,“ MALDEF‘s Antonia Hernandez told the Weekly. ”They give us money! That’s why I wrote the op-ed. That‘s a cheap shot. Do you think that 40 or 50 thousand dollars is going to have an impact on a budget of $6.5 million?“

If Edison’s contributions are irrelevant, what prompted these authors, who, in the past, have ignored the bite deregulation has taken out of their constituents, to weigh in now?

”A number of us had been talking,“ Angela Oh answered from her West L.A. office. ”The main concern that emerged was: How can we just stand by and not say, ‘Look, there have been some good things these folks have done with their resources?’ [Edison] cannot be cast as entirely evil.“ Oh ”called a friend in community relations at Edison, and I said I‘d like to write an article.“

SCE spokesman Clarence Brown acknowledges that the company pitched in. ”They were concerned about fallout [from bankruptcy] on their interests,“ Brown said. ”So we said, ’We‘d like to get that voice heard.’ They said, ‘Can you give us some bullet points on how to express that? Of all the things you’ve done, what would be the most major?‘“ Brown came up with the ”bullet points,“ what he calls an ”outline for the piece.“ Said Brown: ”I provided some information for the piece that only we probably could have provided.“ He detailed Edison’s $35 million handout to L.A. organizations after the 1992 riots, and fleshed out the idea to the authors that ”We provide more than money to the community, that we take our corporate citizenship seriously.“ That, of course, became the central message of the February 22 op-ed piece, which eventually emerged from Hernandez‘s office, with Edison’s fingerprints neatly airbrushed off.

Times editorial-page editor Janet Clayton believes that identifying the authors‘ ties to Edison was unnecessary. ”Ideally [Angela Oh] would have been identified as a former member of the Edison Advisory Board,“ Clayton said. ”The piece was clearly a piece advocating on behalf of Edison . . . Given that Edison is widely known as a big charitable giver to various organizations, it’s certainly not surprising, indeed it‘s implicit, that Edison has given money to the Urban League, MALDEF and many other major groups.“ Of course, that’s explicitly what the op-ed omitted, leaving unsuspecting readers to confuse ventriloquism for independent commentary.

When the op-ed appeared in print, SCE‘s Brown, unlike some readers, wasn’t the least bit baffled, or surprised, by the erstwhile civil rights activists‘ point of view. ”Their interests are in the corporate sector,“ the SCE flack said. ”That’s where they get most of their support.“

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