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Lord of the Race

Illustration by Jack Black

After years of improvements, the air in Los Angeles has started getting dirtier. The decline can be traced to decisions like the one William A. Burke faced in 1994 in his first major test as a new member of the regional air watchdog agency. Environmentalists packed the auditorium of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar, ready to fight — even charge the dais, if necessary — all for the cause of cleaning up toxic pollution from factories around the Los Angeles area estimated to cause 10,000 people to get cancer.

They hoped they finally had their man, a champion of environmental justice, at the helm of their crusade to rid impoverished areas of more than their fair share of foul air. Burke had already made a name for himself as the founder of the L.A. Marathon and wielded power, behind the scenes, over city affairs as one of the city’s most influential African-American power brokers. In September of 1993 he had been appointed to the board by then–Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, and finally his moment to prove his value had arrived.

On this relatively clear winter day, a boisterous crowd of workers, parents and students from Wilmington, a community surrounded by oil refineries, and residents from other urban industrial zones waved signs and marched outside. They could smell their victory over the business forces assembled in the room, which opposed as bad for capitalism any significant reduction in emissions of benzene, chromium and other deadly pollutants. The environmental-justice crowd knew the district’s own studies blamed the stew of toxics for causing disproportionately high levels of cancer in their neighborhoods.

Bill Burke surprised them. He cited the cost of the rules to business and joined the free-market capitalists, deserting his following. He backed a hollow alternative that required little, if any action, by most factories for years to come. Labor Community Strategies Center organizer Chris Mathis, an African-American who had brought scores of people to the hearing, marched to the front of the room and confronted Burke. “You’re no brother,” he yelled. Burke lurched over the dais at him, shouting back, “Fuck you.” Sheriff’s deputies rushed in and cleared the hall, and the meeting came to a sudden close.

Burke caved that day, and he has been caving ever since. His critics question whether Burke can separate his own interests as the marathon man from the interests of the public, whom he serves not only on the regional board, but as L.A.’s representative on the California Air Resources Board, which sets statewide policy. In fact, the tentative sponsor of the first marathon, General Motors, got a big break from the state board in 2001 when demand for development of electric cars stalled out. Burke played a major role in dismantling the program, likely defeating hopes of returning L.A.’s air to a healthful state for at least another generation.

Burke’s actions on air pollution raise the fundamental question of how somebody with so many economic supporters that generate pollution — ranging from the city of Los Angeles and automakers to airlines and energy companies that sponsor his marathon — can be an impartial environmental regulator on behalf of the public. A review of thousands of pages of public documents in Los Angeles, Diamond Bar, Sacramento and San Francisco — including those obtained through nine requests from various agencies under the California Public Records Act — casts severe doubt on his ability to do so as both chair of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and as the Los Angeles area’s representative on the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

“I don’t think there’s a conflict,” insists Burke. “What you’re really saying is I shouldn’t serve.”

Records show that under his tenure as chairman of the AQMD and as a member of the state Air Resources Board, air pollution in greater Los Angeles has worsened and is slipping back to where it was 10 years ago, when pollution reached unhealthful levels one out of three days. The consequences — thousands of deaths and illnesses — are as serious as crime in Southern California, though they garner little media attention. (Full disclosure: For 13 years, I was the press spokesman for the AQMD. I resigned in 2001, dismayed by the creeping corporate influence that threatened progress in the war on air pollution.)

Under Burke, the AQMD has treaded lightly on the city of Los Angeles, which operates some of the most polluting facilities in the region, including the sprawling port, the region’s major airports, as well as major power plants. Moreover, the records show that Burke worked behind the scenes at the CARB to relieve regulatory pressure on automakers to clean up motor vehicles, the number-one cause of air pollution in California. Despite his professed concern for environmental justice, he intervened on behalf of the Rev. Pat Robertson, who was attempting to open a closed-down oil refinery in Santa Fe Springs, a largely working-class Latino community in polluted and industrialized southeast Los Angeles County. Around the same time, Burke also helped Robertson take over an African gold-mining concession for a piece of the action.

Many of the clean-air regulations adopted by the regional board in the past five years have been required under a 1999 settlement agreement with environmental groups, which sued the agency for deficiencies in its clean-air plan. Other standards adopted for public trucks and buses to a large extent apply only when state money is available to pay for their cleanup, and remain idled by the state’s financial crisis.

At Los Angeles City Hall, records show that Burke’s Los Angeles Marathon Inc., which paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for a campaign-money-laundering operation in the 1990s, received continual breaks on city fees for his for-profit marathon from members of the council to whom it contributed. “Clearly he has been somebody influential at City Hall,” said Mike Feuer, a former member of the Los Angeles City Council who questioned concessions to Burke’s marathon.

“He’s right,” quipped Burke. In fact, in years past he might have even exerted what he called “undue” influence at City Hall. “I had more influence then than I have now because of term limits. Everybody who knows me knows that I have never, never deviated from my efforts to improve all communities.”

In his spacious high-ceilinged office in West Los Angeles — decorated with dozens of framed photos, including his own signed work from an Italian vacation, shots of the white-haired Burke with elected officials and celebrities, and memorabilia and posters from early marathons — he said, “I know I’m successful. At least I like to think I’m successful.”

When it comes to seeking influence through political contributions, the 64-year-old Burke has few peers, according to Ben Bycel, an attorney who headed the newly formed City of Los Angeles Ethics Commission in the 1990s and led the investigation into the marathon money-laundering scheme. “From our perspective, Burke was as dirty as they come.”

 

To the public, Burke often took a back seat to his wife, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the assemblywoman, the member of Congress and now the 2nd District’s representative on the county Board of Supervisors. His real political training began in 1967 as a field deputy for L.A. City Councilman Billy Mills, where he became involved with a network of people who would become politically prominent.

“Nate Holden and I used to bag and haul mail together,” remembered Burke. “We met on the loading docks.” Holden later would go on to become a member of the City Council and a staunch supporter of Burke’s marathon. Burke said he was a friend of the family of former Speaker of the Assembly Herb Wesson.

Over the years, Wesson and Burke have been political allies. Burke’s political action committee, Californians United Political Action, contributed more than $615,000 to various people running for state office in 2002. Wesson helped raise money for the committee, much of it from tobacco companies and the gambling industry. Soon after the committee’s 2002 spending spree, Wesson appointed Burke to a third state board with sweeping power over the environment — the California Coastal Commission, and Burke quickly became vice chair.

The opportunity of a lifetime opened in the 1984 U.S. Olympics in Los Angeles, when his wife became vice chair of the Organizing Committee and he became commissioner of tennis under Olympics Committee head Peter Ueberroth. After the games, the Los Angeles City Council decided to begin an annual marathon. Building on his experience with the Olympics, Burke formed Los Angeles Marathon Inc. to bid on operating the race.

Burke ranked third among the nine bidders, but eventually won because he became the first finalist to secure a major corporate sponsor, a tentative commitment from General Motors Corporation to pay $600,000 a year for a three-year period. The company backed out, and Mercedes-Benz moved in and sponsored the first race.

Today, one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the marathon is how much money Burke makes on it. What is obvious to City Council members who have served in L.A. since 1986 is that Burke pushes hard for concessions from the city, and loathes paying license fees to run the race.

In a 1998 interview with Runner’s World Daily, Burke bragged, “The event has always been known for having some of the largest marathon sponsorship deals in the country.” Last month, however, Burke downplayed the size of marathon sponsorships. Despite public subsidies and the fact that the marathon is run under a public contract, the truth may never be known about Burke’s profits. Soon after he became operator of the event for the city, the council waived regular audits of the company’s books. Moreover, marathon sponsors are bound by a confidentiality agreement with Burke’s company from revealing what they pay to Los Angeles Marathon Inc., according to Richard Beemish, communications manager for Southern California Gas Co., a major sponsor.

While he boasted of fat sponsorships six years ago, today Burke contends that he would go out of business if he had to pay the various fees now forgiven by the city. “We operate on a very slim profit margin,” said Burke. “Some years it’s over $100,000, some years under $100,000.” At the suggestion of opening his books to a city audit, Burke bristled, “This is America, this is not Russia.” ‰

Nonprofit organizations operate the Boston and New York marathons, two of the oldest and largest races in the nation. The New York Road Runners covers its costs and has a “charitable component,” said Amie Fisher, a club spokeswoman. Boston’s marathon — founded in 1896 — is a charitable event operated by the Boston Athletic Association. Corporations pay between $1.5 million a year to “the low five figures,” and what’s left over after the race pays for 10 year-round youth sports programs that serve 2,000 middle-school students. The association fully reimburses the eight cities through which the Boston Marathon runs.

In Los Angeles, sponsors pay cash to Burke’s company and in some cases provide in-kind services. Honda, for instance, not only pays a cash sponsorship fee, but also provides posters, hats, lapel pins and “goody bags” to marathon participants, according to Karen Kim, administrator of corporate advertising. “It is one of our largest sponsorships,” she said. “Our goal is to promote the image of Honda in terms of environmental and good corporate citizenship.”

The magnitude of the marathon’s success seemed far away in its early days. In 1986, the council gave Burke a three-year contract and charged him a licensing fee of $50,000 or 3 percent of gross receipts, whichever was greater, increasing to no more than $70,000, or 5 percent, the third year. City expenses were estimated at up to $200,000.

The first marathon drew nearly 11,000 runners, and Burke said he lost $30,000. The city extended his contract for five years and charged him $70,000, or 5 percent of gross receipts. In 1987, he paid the city $79,000 and took in some $2 million.

City expenses increased, from $75,000 in 1986 to almost $177,000 in 1990. Instead of covering those expenses directly, the marathon offered to provide free advertising to city departments, such as the zoo.

A 1995 audit by the city controller found that Burke’s company neither adequately reimbursed the city nor fulfilled the advertising requirement. Auditors reported that, between 1992 and 1994, the marathon failed to provide $300,000 in advertising and claimed an inflated value for the advertising it did provide. Instead of running ads for the city on billboards, for instance, the marathon worked a trade with a local dairy that ran ads on milk cartons in exchange for being listed as a sponsor of the marathon. He claimed the value of the milk-carton ads to be $450,000, 10 times their real value, the controller said.

Instead of tightening the reins, the council renewed his contract through 2005 for an annual licensing fee of $100,000 a year. Last month, when asked about all of this, Burke said the marathon was never audited and that he had no knowledge of the 1995 audit report.

But he did rail against the $100,000 fee. “I think that that $100,000 belongs to my organization,” said Burke, who maintains he has received “no subsidies for the marathon” and could file a “lawsuit against the city” for unequal application of the law because other events and organizations receive fee waivers.

Now, Burke’s marathon attracts nearly 30,000 participants a year at up to $70 per entry and 1.5 million spectators. Moreover, the company makes money selling marathon merchandise and running a Quality of Life Expo packed with paying exhibitors at the Los Angeles Convention Center days before the marathon.

 

“This was the face of L.A.,” said Ben Bycel, the first director of the L.A. Ethics Commission, of the L.A. Marathon. “Here you have this guy who’s basically bought himself a contract and is making a bundle off it.” Bycel examined Burke’s books from the 1991 race, at a time when Burke was under pressure to reimburse the city of Los Angeles for marathon-related expenses.

Bycel, who now is a rural lawyer in Vermont, said his investigation uncovered evidence that Burke’s company made campaign contributions exceeding legal limits to marathon supporters at Los Angeles City Hall while those members were busy waiving fees for his private corporation. Under the law, the marathon could contribute no more than $4,000 in the April primary election and $2,500 in the June general election.

The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, along with the Fair Political Practices Commission, fined Burke’s corporation $436,250 in 1994 for laundering campaign contributions. The company paid $200,000 in fines to the city commission for illegal campaign contributions to members of the Los Angeles City Council in 1991 and $236,000 to the state commission for illegal contributions to other elected officials.

Around the same time that some on the City Council were pressing for more fees from the marathon to cover the city’s growing expenses for the foot race, Burke’s company gave $3,500 more than the law allowed to Hal Bernson, $5,500 to Mark Ridley-Thomas, and $9,000 to Nate Holden, all council members. He also gave to several other council members, who, while generally supportive of the marathon, did not take a lead role in sponsoring city concessions to his enterprise. Holden said the marathon produced tax revenue for the city and that the marathon has had “no fee breaks.” Ridley-Thomas did not return numerous calls seeking his comment.

Burke’s company used employees to funnel campaign contributions above the legal limit for any one contributor. Marathon employees wrote a series of checks to council members for their election campaigns in 1991 and were reimbursed from Los Angeles Marathon Inc.’s bank account.

Recalling the case, Burke said that an employee acted on his own accord to arrange for the excess contributions without his knowledge. Over the course of two separate interviews for this story, Burke consistently maintained that he has never closely monitored his small company’s finances, leaving that instead to others. “For 23 years I have never written a check,” he said. “I’m okay at making money. I’m horrible at keeping it and really horrible at keeping track of it.”

Ed Guthman who served on the ethics panel at the time, said money laundering is a common method of circumventing campaign-finance restrictions. “Whenever it’s done, it’s trying to get around the law,” Guthman said. “That speaks for itself.”

Records show that council members who received money introduced measures to subsidize Los Angeles Marathon Inc. throughout the 1990s. After it became evident in 1991 that the marathon was not fully reimbursing the city, Councilmen Nate Holden and Mark Ridley-Thomas successfully sponsored a motion for the city to hang 28 free promotional banners for Burke along the marathon route. The next year, on a motion by Holden and Ridley-Thomas, the council approved distributing marathon entry forms to all of the city’s 48,000 employees with their paychecks. In 1996, Councilman Hal Bernson succeeded in increasing the number of free banners installed to 1,000, at a cost of $46,000 to the city. Fees were waived for placement of stages and other items through the years.

On a motion by Holden backed by Bernson and Ridley-Thomas, the council agreed to spend part of a $1 million state grant intended to pick up litter and recycle beverage containers at the zoo toward cleanup after the marathon. Then in 2001 — a full four years before the marathon contract was set to expire — Bernson and Holden successfully moved to extend Burke’s contract through 2011 for a license fee of $120,000 a year. “I always thought it was a good thing for the city, and it gave the city some stature,” Bernson said. He said the city probably gains more in sales tax than it spends on the marathon.

“I don’t think I’ve given Hal Bernson more than $1,000 or $1,500,” said Burke. “He’s a friend of mine.” Records show Bernson received $3,500 in excess contributions from the marathon. ‰

Not all members of the council supported the subsidies sponsored by Bernson and others for the marathon, including Joel Wachs. “It was something Joel looked at and on its face was wrong,” recalled Greg Nelson, an aide to Wachs at the time and now director of the city’s neighborhood-empowerment program. “The marathon is a moneymaker, and how much do we need to be using public resources to subsidize it?”

Reflecting on the renewal of the marathon’s contract while he served on the council, Feuer said, “I couldn’t identify a reason why a contract already in effect should be sweetened.”

Such skeptics were in the minority. The council continued waiving fees for Burke. A 2003 report by the city’s chief legislative analyst showed that ongoing fee waivers — requested by City Councilman Greig Smith — made the marathon the only citywide event to receive such waivers. Most are granted for events occurring in distinct sections of the city, such as the Academy Awards or block parties.

In light of the impending budget crunch, the council is examining how to restrict event-fee waivers. “We’re looking at a $200 million hit to revenues,” said Mitch Englander, chief of staff to Smith, who said that the waiver practice would be tightened up. “Everything will be subject to it.”

In 1997, Burke took over as chairman of the AQMD board and tried to reclaim his role as a fighter for environmental justice, with a 10-point program. Recalling a recent visit to his boyhood home of Zanesville, Ohio, and how a stream where he once fished was now polluted, he pledged to seek environmental justice.

Activists considered it a breakthrough. The agency vowed to focus on cleaning up pollution problems in poor and working-class neighborhoods surrounded by freeways, grungy industries and bustling warehouses. Under the plan, Burke and the board reversed itself on toxic air pollution, tightening standards for businesses across the area. The agency also cracked down on diesel pollution by adopting a series of rules to require the region’s cities and schools to begin purchasing natural gas instead of diesel trucks and buses. Truck and bus engine makers are challenging the rules in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In introducing his environmental-justice strategy, Burke said, “The goal is not to spread the burden of health risks equally across our region but to reduce the burden for all.”

But the commitment did not last long. Two months later, the board adopted a separate clean-air blueprint considered weak by many, maintaining that it had done virtually all it could to clean up stationary businesses in Southern California, a view reiterated by Burke in an interview for this article. He maintained that most of the cleanup work is now up to the state and federal governments, which must further regulate motor vehicles and other mobile sources.

“That was the time of the infamous 1997 air plan and we filed suit,” recalled Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney Gail Ruderman-Feuer. Two years later, the air district settled the lawsuit and agreed to include new and tighter pollution-control measures on businesses in its cleanup plan.

Recently, the NRDC and other environmental groups have been pressing the AQMD to use its legal powers more expansively to reduce pollution at the city’s sprawling port and at Los Angeles International Airport. Other groups have been pressing the district to do more to cut pollution from power plants, including those operated by the city’s Department of Water and Power.

“As to the ports and airports, they can do more and must do more to reach clean air,” said Ruderman-Feuer. “They’ve been treading lightly on both those facilities.” She maintains that AQMD effectively could set a cap on pollution from the port and airports and require cleanup of baggage-handling and fueling trucks at the airport and reduce traffic congestion. Likewise at the port, AQMD could require cleanup of diesel trucks used to haul containers around the yard, as well as other equipment. With a projected doubling to tripling of traffic at both the port — served by 35,000 diesel trucks a day — and at the airport, pollution from the facilities will grow without controls. Instead, the AQMD has said that the pollution problem at the city facilities is up to the federal Environmental Protection Agency to solve.

“Gail wants the world to live in a vacuum,” said Burke. “Gail makes money suing people for not living in a vacuum. So when you talk about conflict of interest, she probably has the biggest conflict of interest.”

 

The Rev. Pat Robertson had his prayers answered by Burke and the AQMD. In January 1999, Burke joined his fellow board members in rejecting a request by the environmental-justice group Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) to overrule the AQMD executive officer’s reactivation of expired air-pollution-control permits for Robertson’s Powerine oil refinery in Santa Fe Springs. Robertson wanted to reopen the plant and call it Cenco.

Before the vote, Burke had intervened on Robertson’s behalf after meeting with the reverend’s attorney J. Nelson Happy. “He comes into my office and he has a letter from AQMD, and the letter says that if they purchase whatever, Powerine, that the permits would be reissued,” said Burke. “What I did was call the district and ask them to look at the letter and let me know why those permits weren’t reissued.”

Around the same time, Burke had helped Robertson buy an old gold-mining interest in Liberia. Burke had owned the mining operation more than 15 years earlier before selling it to Ken Ross Jr., a former California legislator. Burke said he helped Robertson deal with investors — “widows and little old ladies, and some celebrities” — in the concession controlled by Ross.

Burke got something out of it, too. Robertson gave him an “option” on the operation, known as Freedom Mines Inc., which according to his financial disclosure statement was worth more than $100,000. “The item on my former economic statement was a reflection of that option,” Burke said. “The option has expired and was not executed.”

Because West African gold is difficult to access, few have made money off of the precious metal in Liberia, except for those selling concessions directly or those selling investments in concessions, according to Emira Woods, a Liberian who is co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus in Washington, D.C.

CBE’s legal director, Scott Kuhn, maintains that Burke should have abstained from voting on the refinery issue because of his connection to Robertson. Instead, Burke told Kuhn’s colleague at Communities for a Better Environment, Shipra Bansal, during her testimony on Robertson’s refinery, “As this board moves more and more to serve those who have been un-served in the past, why would you criticize those who are trying to do something and not those who were here in the past? I’m not asking to debate you, lady, I am making a comment; you spoke.” He concluded, just before the board voted down the group’s request to reconsider the permits for Robertson, “I think the way you present yourself, your stuff, sucks.”

A court later overturned the permits for Robertson’s oil refinery in a suit brought by CBE. Said Kuhn, “It was a total victory for us.”

 

The statewide stage — serving as L.A.’s representative on the California Air Resources Board — handed Burke his greatest chance to take historic steps in cleaning up pollution. In 2000, the AQMD board and Governor Gray Davis appointed Burke — who traditionally has had a car company sponsor his marathon — to the state board. At the time, the board was making midcourse corrections to the state’s zero-emissions vehicle requirements for automakers. Burke helped his old friend General Motors to effectively gut the regulations, freeing automakers from the world’s toughest standard to make cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars.

Back in 1990, the agency had adopted its world-renowned zero-emissions vehicle mandate to force automakers to produce large numbers of nonpolluting vehicles. Now, reviewing the technology, the air board figured it should give automakers more time to develop such vehicles, but still pressure them to move as close to zero-emissions technology as possible in the nation’s most polluted state. “It’s the vision thing,” Catherine Witherspoon, executive officer of the Air Resources Board, said in an interview explaining the historic role and importance of the mandate. “It’s what we’re aiming for.”

California’s vision has been important for people across the nation and around the world because it has driven the auto companies to build cleaner vehicles. “It has been monumental,” said Bill Moore, editor of EV World, who has followed the development of electric vehicles since 1998. “Without it, nothing would happen.”

Burke saw things differently. He met privately with General Motors and ended up pushing a proposal to weaken the standard by allowing the giant company to spend millions of dollars to buy its way out of it. Enter Dennis Minano, an attorney who served as vice president of environment and energy for General Motors at the time. “I knew Bill was on the California Air Resources Board. I flew out [from Detroit] and had a chance to sit down and talk to him.” Minano said Burke “was willing to look at new approaches to getting air-quality benefits.”

At the same time, Minano also hoped to work out an agreement with Burke, as chairman of the AQMD, over a contract dispute between his company and the regional agency.

After the meeting — just five months before the air board would vote on the future of the state’s zero-emissions vehicle standard — Burke joined Minano in announcing the AQMD-GM “Community Clean Air Partnership.” Under that partnership, GM was to settle the contract breach with the AQMD involving a project to clean up diesel locomotives. GM, one of two major locomotive builders in North America, had failed to fully participate in delivering a test model of a clean-burning, natural-gas train engine for the Los Angeles area. In a handshake agreement later bragged about in a nonbinding press release, GM promised many things, but has made good only on a donation of $250,000 to a foundation set up by Burke to raise money to clean up diesel school buses — which quickly folded — and to purchase two clean buses in Orange County and 12 clean passenger vans to various community groups. However, the company never delivered on the major item: $1.5 million worth of retrofit kits to reduce ‰pollution from locomotives. AQMD executive officer Barry Wallerstein claims the automotive giant is still working on the kits. “Our position remains, locomotives need to be cleaned up,” he said.

As Burke publicized the partnership with GM, the company hatched a divide-and-conquer strategy, pitting environmental-justice advocates against the zero-emissions auto standards.

In January of 2001, the CARB met to consider a stretched-out timetable for meeting the zero-emissions vehicle standard, as well as to give automakers credit toward the standard for hybrid vehicles and superclean gasoline cars. As the daylong hearing progressed, Burke told his fellow board members, “Now you know, I make deals for a living. I’m going to vote for this thing now, so I’m not trying to make a deal here and change anything on here. I’m a zero-emissions vehicle advocate, but I’m also a realist.”

Burke continued, “I’m the only one on this board with only one lung. I’m the only one on this board with a diminishing capacity in the other lung. Two years ago when I really got sick, going to the bathroom from my bed was a two-stop trip.” Burke, it turned out, had developed trouble breathing around 1997 because of a progressive spinal injury that was compressing a nerve that controlled one of his lungs. He underwent spinal surgery, which largely corrected the problem.

What Burke did not reveal is that he had sent letters to his fellow board members and the staff of the CARB asking them to delay acting on the amendments and to consider further softening the standards. On January 9, Burke wrote to CARB executive officer Michael P. Kenny urging “the board to fully consider the industry’s alternative” — the buyout plan. The same day, he wrote to his fellow board members urging them to delay acting on the amendments until the state could conduct “an extensive energy audit of the impact that the zero-emissions vehicle mandate might have on California’s energy situation.”

Burke’s concerns echoed those of GM, which wondered about how charging electric vehicles would affect the electricity grid in the midst of the energy crisis of 2000-01, a contention David Freeman, who headed the California Power Agency at the time and had spent a career managing electric utilities, called an “outrageous” tactic.

In disclosing contacts he had concerning the amendments right before the air-board voted, Burke said, “I instructed my staff assistant I didn’t want to talk to anybody on this . . . She did an excellent job and she let only two slip through.” They were, he said, Minano of GM and Tom Soto of P.S. Enterprises.

“I was a consultant to GM,” Soto recounted. “I helped design a plan that would work as an alternative to the zero-emissions vehicle mandate.” Under that plan, Soto explained, GM and other automakers would make a cash payment to the state to buy their way out of the zero-emissions vehicle requirement. The money would be used to clean up diesel vehicles, including school buses, a chief concern of environmental-justice advocates. Burke, Soto said, supported the plan, believing it would enable the state to continue its diesel cleanup program, which was beginning to run out of money at the time. “It was very bold of him to take that position,” said Soto, who also worked to secure legislative support for the giant automaker.

Soto arranged for a group of environmental-justice advocates from the East Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights to attend the hearing and speak in support of the GM proposal. “It turns out that GM paid our way,” said one of the activists, Margarita Sanchez.

Wallerstein said that the AQMD supported GM’s proposal to buy the company’s way out of the mandate, a move thought to be worth $400 million a year to the state and AQMD to clean up diesel vehicles. As a member of the state CARB and chair of the AQMD, Burke would have had substantial control over that money. “Once I have control of the money,” said Burke, “you can’t pull the wool over my eyes. End of story.” He called backing the GM plan “the best move I ever made in my life.”

However, Burke said, “We couldn’t do that without CARB’s permission. So I called up Alan Lloyd [chair of the CARB] and said, ‘Look, here’s the deal: They’re willing to do this. Can we do it as a pilot project?’ And he said, ‘No,’ so I said, ‘Okay,’ but told him that battery electric vehicles were going nowhere. Alan Lloyd says, ‘I have orders from the administration to continue to pursue battery technology.’”

Asked about whether he had orders from the administration or governor, Lloyd simply replied: “Not correct. I never got a call from the governor. In all my time I got one call from the governor, and that was not to tell me what to do. I didn’t see any merit in having a company buy its way out of the standard.” He went on to say it was “the start of a slippery slope” to allow a company to buy its way out of a regulation.

 

The GM lobbying campaign inspired key members of the state Assembly to send letters questioning the zero-emissions vehicle program, including then-Speaker Herb Wesson, a former chief of staff for Burke’s wife; Carl Washington, a former staff member for Burke’s wife; Tony Cardenas, chair of the budget committee; Alex Padilla; Marco Firebaugh and others who urged a delay on the vote. They also urged the CARB to give automakers greater flexibility in meeting the emissions standards.

Lloyd said he welcomed the legislators’ voicing their concerns. “What I was surprised about,” he said, “was the explicit reference at the hearing that some of the legislators were sitting on our budget.”

Typical of the letters was one sent by Wesson, who wrote on January 12, 2001, “California’s communities need a regulation that will further the objectives of the zero-emissions vehicle mandate, namely cleaner air and healthier citizens, while giving regulators and businesses a flexible framework that can consider new ideas.”

Addressing the concerns of legislators and automakers, the air board gave automakers credit toward meeting the zero-emissions standard by improving energy efficiency in their gasoline-powered cars. “It was an attempt to extend flexibility,” recalled the Air Resources Board’s Witherspoon. “The surprising part was when they filed the lawsuit.”

It should have been no surprise, however. In a three-volume submission to the air board just days before the 2001 vote, GM warned that it would sue the state if the standard was adopted. Nobody discussed the warning at the hearing, and air-board staff members did not recall reading the document. The board approved the revisions, including the last-minute energy-efficiency language. GM then joined Daimler-Chrysler and a group of Central Valley auto dealers to challenge the revised regulations on the grounds that the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act pre-empted states from setting fuel-efficiency standards for autos. A federal district court issued an injunction preventing the CARB from enforcing the 2001 standards. While the board appealed the injunction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco never heard the case. Instead, the air board settled it and early in 2003 effectively removed the zero-emissions vehicle requirement from the state regulations, except to require the automakers to produce a handful of hydrogen-powered, fuel-cell vehicles.

The standard was overturned just as the electric vehicle was poised to gain commercial success because of a breakthrough that had occurred in battery technology. “It was like telling people to scale Mount Everest and, when they were a foot from the top, telling them, ‘No, we didn’t mean it,’” said Steve Kirsch, the founder of Infoseek, whose foundation pushes development of electric vehicles. “Everyone supporting the climbers just packed and left.”

In the end, the air board “got nothing,” said Wallerstein. After beating back the standards, Dennis Minano retired from GM, and the company did not deliver any money to the state to clean up diesel trucks and buses.

“They made a bad decision in Sacramento, but I guess the governor paid for that because he got recalled,” said Burke. Weeks later, in a follow-up interview, Burke said tighter controls on auto emissions are now needed. “If you don’t control the mobile emissions, we’re fighting a standoff and will be overcome,” he said.

 

It now appears that the same corporate interests, along with those of the city of Los Angeles that had dominated the AQMD in the early to mid-1980s, have recaptured the agency. Burke, it seems, may have played a role. GM talked of developing new sources of money to advance environmental justice and cleaner air, but the money never came. And, under Burke, the agency backed off on rule making and its push for renewable energy. It unwittingly set the stage for deterioration in air quality just as it had final victory in the 50-year war against smog within its sights.

Burke has steadfastly denied having any conflicts of interest between his work on the marathon and the boards on which he sits. At the AQMD, for example, he says the agency’s lawyers give him a memo before a meeting advising him of any potential conflicts.

He says his wide-ranging interest in political campaigns and contributions to strong leaders is no cause for alarm. “Everybody has a right to give back to the environment in which they exist,” said Burke. “If I was looking to feather my nest, I would consolidate my contributions and make them more effective in one location. Not my purpose.”

All in all, however, more scrutiny of potential conflicts of interest is needed, said Jim Knox, who heads Common Cause California. “It’s impossible to look at any level of government where decision makers don’t have interests,” he said. “Particularly at the agency level, it’s not well-scrutinized.”

The agencies themselves also must play a role, appointing ethics officers to place greater priority on observance of conflict-of-interest requirements, said Bob Stern, an attorney and president of the Center for Governmental Studies, who helped draft the state’s Political Reform Act of 1974. “Most agencies don’t take it very seriously,” he said. “They adopt the broadest possible code.”

Which way will the AQMD and the CARB go as they confront deteriorating air quality and the ill health it causes for the region’s residents? Air quality in the Los Angeles area has degraded quickly, with the number of unhealthful days increasing from 36, the all-time low, to 68 days last year, the same number as the year when Burke became chair of the AQMD.

Said Burke: “I think my voting records stand that I’ve been an advocate for the people.”


Smog Gets Personal

I am on my way to Diamond Bar, racing through a brownish-orange haze that obscures the outlines of buildings in the Pomona Valley. It’s December 5, 2003, and I’m remembering the empty chair placed in honor of my daughter’s second-grade teacher a few years back in South Pasadena. For the first time in years, Pat Bermingham was unable to attend the annual rite of passage for fifth graders, who soon would move on to the town’s middle school. Bermingham, a nonsmoker who spent much of her life in the polluted city of Arcadia, had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

It will never be known what caused her cancer. However, epidemiological studies show that Bermingham may have been one of the 10,000 or more residents of the Los Angeles area who can expect to die from air pollution–related cancer. Thousands more will die from pollution-related respiratory and heart ailments. The middle-aged mother — known for teaching, and for her patient and gentle attention to the emotional needs of her young students — was deeply missed that day.

As I pulled into the parking lot of the AQMD headquarters, the board prepared to allow several power plants to re-enter a pollution-trading program that would permit the city of Los Angeles to increase emissions from its electrical generating stations. Increased production would mean more money flowing to the city of Los Angeles’ coffers. It also would mean continued pollution blowing in the gentle sea breezes that cross the San Gabriel Valley.

This was a familiar place to me, with its solar-powered, electric car–charging station and its energy-conservation features. I had labored there for almost 14 years, joining the organization as a media spokesman at a time of hope and revitalization in 1988. A new board and executive officer, James M. Lents, stunningly announced that they had a plan to restore the air in Los Angeles, the most polluted city in the nation, within a generation. At its core: a transition to electric cars powered by renewable energy — wind, solar, biomass and renewable fuels. For years, I intensely helped media from around the world cover the environmental revolution occurring in Los Angeles.

The agency made rapid progress, adopting rules to shift industries to low-polluting materials, to clean up power plants, foundries and refineries, and to promote carpooling and cleaner household products. It launched a technology-advancement program to fund development of cleaner vehicles and renewable-energy systems, such as the solar-charge port that still stands at AQMD today.

Air pollution plummeted from 178 days above the federal health standard for ozone when I joined AQMD in 1988 to 68 days when Lents was sacked in 1997, a 62 percent decline in 10 years. In the midst of such success, Lents had been assailed by a coalition of strange bedfellows on his own board — including some conservative Republicans, and some members of color, who said he had been insensitive to Latinos and African-Americans. Now some of the same members who, four years earlier, had rejected his proposed new rules to reduce toxic air pollution — the very elements of environmental justice — joined together to fire him. It seemed ironic when William A. Burke said the chief executive officer needed to be more concerned about environmental justice.

After Lents left, progress stalled.

Rather than stretching its legal authority to get a handle on growing pollution from the city of Los Angeles’ gigantic port and airport operations, the AQMD engaged in finger-pointing and blamed the federal government and state for failing to control the problem.

The agency backed off on rule-making and its push for renewable energy, and unwittingly set the stage for deterioration in air quality just as it had final victory in the 50-year-old war against smog within its sight. The all-time cleanest year on record in the Los Angeles region was 2001, with 36 days above the federal health standard for ozone; in 2003, 68 such unhealthful days. Growth will continue and traffic will become more congested, worsening pollution.

And what of environmental justice? Some progress can be noted, but just as with regional smog, the outlook remains hazy. Truck traffic at the ports is expected to grow from some 35,000 trucks a day to 90,000 over the decade or so ahead. Airline traffic will grow, as will the region’s need for landfill space.

Unless environmental regulators constantly press ahead, environmental justice, like smog-free air, will not occur in our generation. While we wait, another generation will grow up under the assault of pollution and risk becoming prematurely memorialized by empty chairs placed by their colleagues and loved ones in their own communities.

— W.J.K.


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