Old issue pops up in Vernon political fight

Two decades ago, Assembly Speaker John Pérez dropped out of the University of California at Berkeley without receiving a bachelor’s degree, an issue that has been reported over the years. Much later, as he became prominent, he failed to correct those who identified him as a graduate – something that he acknowledged in a statement last Friday.

The old story became news again as Pérez pushes hotly contested legislation to abolish the scandal-plagued industrial town of Vernon – a city in Pérez’s district – and fold it into the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County.

An array of labor and business interests have mounted a major effort to block Pérez’s bill, and the flap over his educational background offers one example of how the nature of Capitol communications battles can become personal and intense.

Pérez and his allies are convinced that numerous stories focusing on Pérez’s lack of a UC diploma were driven by political foes, although they admitted that they can’t prove the involvement of anyone directly in the pay of the city.

The latest round of stories on Perez’s UC career followed a May 19 report in the investigative web site California Watch,  which noted that the issue “arose during a hearing on a measure Pérez has sponsored to disincorporate the tiny Los Angeles County city of Vernon.”

Pérez’s AB 46 would abolish any city with fewer than 150 people — a classification that fits only Vernon among California cities. On April 13, there was over two hours of debate on the bill in the Assembly Local Government Committee.

At the hearing, Bill Murray of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 47 testified that “transparency needs to start somewhere. On speaker Pérez biography on his website, it says he graduated from college. We did some research and I don’t believe that’s true.”

Murray, who works for Petrelli Electric, Inc. in Agua Dulce, did not respond to a request for an additional comment.

Pérez’s press secretary, John Vigna, said that the Speaker’s website, now and earlier, indicates only that Perez “attended” UC Berkeley. Vigna knows, he said, because he wrote the bio two years ago while working for Pérez before he became Speaker. Pérez personally corrected his original draft at the time, Vigna said.

“He didn’t bother responding at the hearing, because at the time we felt this story had been thoroughly corrected,” Vigna said, adding that there were several criticisms of the bill itself that also needed to addressed.

Doug Herman, Pérez’s campaign consultant, said the new round of old revelations has characteristics of a political hit. He said Pérez has been “diligent” about correcting the record on his education.

“There is clearly consternation among people opposed to legislation proposed by the Speaker,” Herman said. “We would hope that nobody is targeting him because of his legislation.”
Herman added: “It’s too hard to pin the tail on any donkey. I don’t have any proof that any person or group did this.”

The California Watch story by reporter Lance Williams acknowledged that the issue had been out for almost two years, noting that the Sacramento Bee reported it in late 2009, when Pérez ascended to the speakership. Williams also cited the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran a correction of an earlier story about the same time, also confirming the Speaker’s lack of a college diploma.

So why did the story resurface now?

Fred MacFarlane, an outside spokesman for the City of Vernon, said that he did not speak to Williams or California Watch prior to the story’s release.

“It doesn’t have any impact on the city of Vernon,” MacFarlane said. “We’re looking at the legislation from the standpoint that it’s not constitutional. It would probably drive businesses from Vernon. It would cost thousands of workers their jobs. That’s not good in this economy. That’s not good in any economy.”

Over the years, Pérez has corrected inaccurate biographical information but did not do it speedily. “It was only after Pérez was elected to office that he appears to have made efforts to correct the record,” the California Watch story noted.

The story detailed several short biographies of Pérez that have continued to circulate which claimed he was a Berkeley graduate. These include a 2002 press release from then-Governor Gray Davis when he named Pérez to Voting Modernization Board, a bio from the gay rights group Equality Forum, another from the UC Berkeley’s gay alumni association, a 2004 bio distributed by then Congresswoman Hilda Solis, and a 1998 thumbnail from when then-Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan named Pérez to the city’s Human Relations Commission.

In 2005, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa put Pérez – who is Villaraigosa’s cousin – on the city redevelopment commission and the accompanying biography released with the announcement of the appointment had flawed information.  And there was a mention of a 2010 Capitol Weekly interview with Pérez where he said that he came out as gay during a 1991 campus meeting — the year after he left school. When asked for clarification, Perez noted that he attended numerous meetings as an activist, including ones on campus after he left school, and does not remember whether the incident happened in 1991 or shortly before.

Pérez has also said he accepts “full responsibility” for “not being diligent enough” in correcting the confusion. According to a spokesman, Pérez quit his pursuit of a Chicano studies degree “to deal with family and financial issues.”

The California Watch piece led to at least three-dozen follow-up stories by other news organizations.

The FlashReport, a politically influential blog run by conservative GOP player Jon Fleischman – long a foe of Perez, a Democrat — trumpeted the story for several days. Fleischman said the story “stunned the Golden State” and said Perez was involved in a cover-up. Fleischman also linked documents that he said showed Pérez had lied in the past about having a degree. These include a 1998 Los Angeles City Commission application that includes a bio from the United Food & Commercial Workers Union Region 8, where Pérez was executive director at the time. The post also links three similar L.A. city documents from 2005 and 2007.

Although Pérez’s AB 46 doesn’t mention Vernon by name, it is the only incorporated city in California with that few residents — a mere 112 according to last year’s Census. Nor is it isolated and thus subject to and exception in the bill, given that its five square miles of land are located only about five miles from downtown Los Angeles and within Pérez’s highly-urban district.

The bill passed the Assembly on a 62-7 vote on April 28 and has moved over to the Senate. Pérez has said that Vernon has long been a “fiefdom” controlled by a small, corrupt group of businessmen who subvert democratic elections. Pérez has also pointed to the high pay of some local officials, such as the $1.65 million paid to city attorney Eric Fresch in 2008.
The city has countered with a massive lobbying effort, reporting $566,884 in the first three months of this year alone. That’s over $5,000 per resident. They’ve hired a quartet of high powered Sacramento firms: KP Pu
blic Affairs, Capitol Advocacy, LLC, Nielsen Merksamer, and Joe Gonsalves & Son.

But that money is just the beginning of what Vernon has spent in its bid for survival. In January, the Los Angeles Times reported that Vernon has paid $54 million in legal fees over the past five years.

They also brought in veteran political strategist Chris Lehane of Fabiani & Lehane. Lehane handled crisis communications for the Bill Clinton White House during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky affairs. Lehane declined to comment for this story.

Some other standard sources of information appear to dance around Pérez’s lack of a college degree. Pérez’s Wikipedia page and his official Assembly biography both state that he “attended” UC Berkeley.

The 2009 and 2011 Legislative directories published by Capitol Enquiry lists the school without saying he graduated. But it doesn’t state “graduate” next to the schools attended by other legislators, either, even though most if not all of those people actually obtained degrees from the schools listed.

According to Capitol Enquiry president Bruce Campbell, legislators or their offices provide the information that appears near the top of these listings – data which also often includes things like date of birth and marriage and family status.

But he added that it’s longstanding company policy to list schools attended without raising the issue of whether or not the person graduated. This stance dates back to the company’s 1973 founding by Campbell’s mother, Ruth Pritchard – who herself didn’t graduate from Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio, which she attended in the early 1940s. Campbell said she had to leave around her third year due to financial problems, and that was also an era when women were discouraged from getting degrees.

“She thought it was important to put where someone went to school so you would know their background and that would be a conversation starter,” Campbell said. “Historically, we’ve never put that in.”

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