Tales from the

As newspaper staffs wither, Capitol reporters are leaving to join the government they once covered. But their new mission is a lot like their old one – digging up information on state government.

Both the Assembly and Senate have created entities to investigate government. In the Assembly, Speaker Karen Bass has established the Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review. In the Senate, it’s the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes – an office that Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg hopes will become an institutional watchdog, a sort of inspector general of state operations. They say the effort will be bipartisan, and that the goal is to improve government efficiency.

“The chairman assures me that his goal is to really reform and cut back on the waste in government. There are no sacred cows at this point, and it is nonpartisan,” said freshman Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Diamond Bar, a member of the Assembly panel. “The reporters have the skills to get into some of this stuff,” he added.

But for the reporters doing the work, there is a different kind of political power that comes with the job.

“It’s the same thing as a being a reporter, but with subpoena power,” said Tom Dresslar, who spent 13 years covering the Capitol for the Daily Journal legal newspaper, then left to join the Capitol staff under then-Speaker Bob Hertzberg as an oversight investigator. Dresslar’s work was cited by members of both houses as a template for the new setup.

Making the transition from journalist to legislative investigator may be harder than it sounds. “It is difficult, it is a change of identity and it is hard – harder for some than for others. It’s like leaping across a canyon,” said communications consultant Don Fields, a former television news producer and legislative staffer.

“I feel like the skill set I’m using is the same one that I used as a reporter – finding information, talking to people,” said Mark Martin, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who left when the Chronicle’s Sacramento bureau was slashed from seven to two. Martin worked at the Little Hoover Commission, an investigatory body, and now has joined the Assembly’s accountability committee. “The charge of the committee is to look at government programs to determine if they’re working, and find ways to save the state money,” he said.

Dresslar, who is married to Steinberg’s chief of staff, Kathy Dresslar, says the new committees established by Bass and Steinberg are desperately needed.  “Real institutional oversight — that’s something that really needs to be done,” added Dresslar, now a spokesperson for state Treasurer Bill Lockyer. “The skills that reporters bring to the Capitol are sorely needed, particularly for oversight.”

“In a lot of ways, it’s very smart for the government to hire people who were once so-called adversaries of government. Personally, I would be concerned about having enough free rein, that there would be some sacred cow that you would be told not to look at,” said Brian Joseph, an investigative reporter and Sacramento correspondent for the Orange County Register. “But when you’re looking at the people involved here, I would have to think that they would not go for something like that.”

And if reporters are what they’re looking for, the labor market couldn’t be better for internal government investigators. The new call for governmental oversight from within comes at a time when newspapers are struggling financially, and some of the Capitol’s best reporters are leaving the journalism profession.

“The Press Corps is shell shocked, diminished,” said former Sacramento Bee reporter Gary Delsohn, a speech writer for Gov. Schwarzenegger and newly named communications director for the Irvine Company.

Of the 95 print journalists credentialed to cover the California Legislature during the 2007-08 session, 25 are now gone. Actually, the proportion of departures is far higher, because the 95 credentials include many people who don’t really cover the Capitol on a daily or even weekly basis. For example, of the 13 photographers credentialed by the Sacramento Bee, only one or two are a regular presence in the Capitol. Of the Capitol reporters who left, two departed to raise families, two retired and at least three left to take jobs in the private world – such as with law firms or lobbyists or Capitol trade associations. Many of the rest went into public employment, and those now include the chief spokesman for the California lottery, a deputy cabinet secretary in Gov. Schwarzenegger’s administration and spokespeople for various members in the Senate and Assembly.

But as the newspaper industry struggles, reporters are finding refuge in government. Even in the turbulent era of term limits, these new political jobs come with more job security than a reporting position. And they often come with better health benefits and higher salaries.  That might explain why “there are more reporters working in the Senate now than there are in the Press Corps,” one Senate staffer quipped.

Reporters Nancy Vogel of the Los Angeles Times, and Dorothy Korber of the Sacramento Bee have left their papers to work for the Senate office, while Terri Hardy, also from the Bee, went to the Senate Office of Research. Martin has gone to the Assembly committee, and at least one, perhaps more, reporters may follow him. Two other reporters apparently have been offered jobs in both houses, legislative sources say. Lawyers will be working with them, too.

“We’ll try to do this in a bipartisan way, it’s not going to be a partisan effort,” Steinberg said in an earlier interview. “It’s going to be out of the Rules Committee, which has Democratic and Republican representation. It’s always been my sense that the party that cares the least about government is the party that’s railing about accountability.”

The reporters tend to agree, although they are familiar with the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics.

What if the reporters follow the money and it leads them to the people who hired them? What if the big story slams the ruling Democrats or their big donors or powerful bureaucrats who know where the bodies are buried – or all of the above?  Are reporters, trained to ferret out wrongdoing, a good fit for the Capitol, where partisan politics is ferocious and sustained?

Nobody really knows.

“People in the press like to think they have a lock on virtue and righteousness and want to change the world. But I’ve met so many people in government who share the same view, who want to change the world for the better and make a difference. And that’s a more natural path than reporting,” Delsohn said. “But it’s good to get people from the media. You have a different perspective, you come in with a fresh set of eyes.”

At the Little Hoover Commission, reporters have a lengthy history. Over the years, a number of journalists left the profession to join the commission staff, including current executive director Stuart Drown, former city editor of the Sacramento Bee. “For us, the commission is like the editor, and they pick topics and direct it. It’s not just one person. There is a system that actually brings out a lot of information, and we spend a lot of time developing information,” he said. “We try to be neutral and the commission is completely bipartisan.”
So, given the dangers, will government reporters investigating government actually work in the Sen
ate and Assembly?

“It is possible to set up an oversight group to do what the Press Corps did. That’s what  Steinberg and the Speaker are trying to do,” said Bill Cavala, a veteran Democratic staffer, now retired,  who was involved in a number of major legislative investigations. In two of the best known — the probe into a disputed $95 million Oracle software contract and an investigation that forced the resignation of former Insurance Commissioner Charles Quackenbush — former reporters with the government played a crucial role. The latter included Dresslar and the late Gary Webb, who earlier had worked as an investigative reporter with the old San Jose Mercury News.

“At the end of the day, it served its purpose. The work wasn’t always the work designed to meet the standards of Pg. 1 of a metropolitan newspaper, but they were done well, they were oversight, they were timeless,” Cavala said. “With the traditional Press Corps, the trick was to provide them with information to do news stories,” Cavala added.  “Now, there are fewer reporters, so they (the oversight reporters) will do the stories….”

"The best thing abut that (Quackenbush) investigation is that it was a real detailed probe," said political strategist Paul Hefner, a former Los Angeles Daily News reporter who worked in the Capitol for Hertzberg. "It was a very unvarnished look at the operations of a state agency. It was an examination of how that institution was operating, a straight-up comparison of the law on one hand and what they found on the other. And what they found was that the two didn't seem to match."

A vivid example of the changing press is the third floor of the office building at 925 L Street. It was once host to at least a dozen  news organizations – including the San Francisco Examiner, the Associated Press, the Register, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner,  Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram, the San Jose Mercury News, the Riverside Press Enterprise, the Oakland Tribune, the Stockton Record, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Contra Costa Times and the Sacramento Bee.  Some papers left for other digs, some closed their bureaus, some consolidated staffs. Now, only the Riverside paper remains with its lone reporter, Jim Miller. The corridor is dark and the doorways to the old news offices are plastered over. At one end of the hall, home of the AP bureau for 27 years, is the office of the welfare directors’ association.

“Sometimes, my friends the welfare directors pop in and say howdy,” Miller said.

Next: Television and radio

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