Reiner turns to “master of disaster” for PR help

Exit stage left: Rob Reiner. Enter stage right: Mark Fabiani.
Hollywood producer Rob Reiner tried to scamper off the center of
California’s political stage last week, resigning as chair of a state
commission for children he helped create seven years earlier. On the day of
his resignation, Reiner was out of town, unavailable for comment.

In his stead was Mark Fabiani, a hired-gun Democratic operative who
specializes in crisis communications.

“Rob is someone that volunteered his time and spent millions of his own
money, all in the interest of improving the quality of life for kids,” said
Fabiani, defending his newest client.

Fabiani, along with business partner Chris Lehane, has earned the nickname
“master of disaster”–a public-relations guru that specializes in crisis
communications. It is a reputation the pair honed in the Clinton White
House, serving as counsel to the president during the Monica Lewinsky and
Whitewater scandals.

Now Reiner, a film director and producer, has cast Fabiani in a supporting
role to help him fend off growing allegations of misspending taxpayer money.

The First 5 California Children and Families Commission, which Reiner
chaired, spent $23 million in public money on advertising that promoted
preschool last winter. Reiner had recused himself from the controversial
advertising decisions, as he is backing a June 2006 ballot measure that
would raise income taxes on wealthy Californians to pay for universal

But at the request of the Legislature, the state auditor is preparing a
broad review of the First 5 ad spending, while state Sen. Chuck Poochigian,
R-Fresno, is demanding an investigation into the spending by the attorney

“You cannot use taxpayer dollars to fund a political agenda. That is
precisely what Rob Reiner did,”said Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, who called
for the audit and sent a letter to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed by
the entire Senate Republican caucus, urging the governor replace Reiner.

Meanwhile, the most recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California
(PPIC) showed support for Reiner’s Proposition 82 preschool measure sagging,
dropping 14 points, from January to March, to 52 percent.

Reiner’s public-relations predicament will hardly be Fabiani’s first. In
2000, he served as deputy campaign manager for Al Gore’s presidential run,
and headed up the post-election effort to discredit former Florida Secretary
of State Katherine Harris during the contentious recount. Four years later,
Miramax hired Fabiani and Lehane to counter right-wing attacks on filmmaker
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

“Employing the Clinton strategy of ’92, we will allow no attack on this
film to go without a response immediately,” Moore said at the time. “And we
will go after anyone who slanders me or my work, and we will do it without

And to do that, Moore turned to Lehane and Fabiani.

Later that year, three-time gold medal Olympian Marion Jones turned to the
Democratic operatives to manage her public image amid doping allegations.
And in 2001, at the height of the California energy crisis, former Governor
Gray Davis hired Fabiani and Lehane as energy advisers. After their hiring,
Davis’ rhetoric quickly turned against President George W. Bush and
“price-gouging energy companies, many of whom reside in Texas.” Hired for
$30,000-a-month in public money, the pair left unpaid after a taxpayer group
sued over a conflict of interest because both Lehane and Fabiani previously
had received $10,000 from a California energy company.

“Fabiani is fantastic,” says former Davis political adviser Garry South.
“There is no one better than him at keeping a cool head, looking at facts
and public perceptions and reacting to them.”

Fabiani also works as special counsel to the San Diego Chargers, a football
team owned by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s second-biggest donor, Alex
Spanos. Spanos has given Schwarzenegger-controlled committees more than $2.6

“Those are completely different areas of work,” said Fabiani. “There is
obviously no connection between the two.”

Fabiani now will try to turn public attention away from Reiner and back
toward the kids that he says will benefit from the preschool initiative.
Reiner has donated more than $600,000 in money and service to the preschool
campaign. Fabiani would not comment on whether he advised Reiner to resign
his post on the First 5 commission.

“The opponents of the proposition have been focusing their attacks on Rob
and it is clear after the last month or so that they have no intent on
opposing the initiative on the merits,” said Fabiani, who has been hired not
by the campaign, but as Reiner’s personal spokesman.

“Mark is handling Rob’s personal stuff so the rest of us can focus on the
campaign,” said Roger Salazar, a Democratic consultant who recently joined
the Yes-on-82 campaign.

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