LOS ANGELES — The Enron debacle is increasingly center stage in the race for California governor, with the candidates accusing each other of ties to the bankrupt company while distancing themselves from the mess.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Bill Jones held a press conference to expose what he called GOP opponent Richard Riordan’s “energy legacy” and to pound Democratic Gov. Gray Davis on the issue, too.
Riordan aides dismissed Jones as “grasping at straws,” and issued a press release questioning whether Davis helped Enron in exchange for $119,500 in campaign funds the governor has gotten from the company and its employees since 1996.
Davis spokesman Roger Salazar denied any quid pro quo with the fallen energy giant, instead accusing the governor’s Republican opponents of “espousing Enron-like policies.”
The charges and countercharges will likely increase as the March 5 primary approaches, but whether they’ll stick is another question, said political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College.
“Unless there was some misconduct on the part of any of the candidates it will end up being a minor issues in the gubernatorial race,” Pitney said. ”... Enron’s political connections were so far-reaching that it’s kind of hard for either side to get much traction.”
The third major GOP candidate, Los Angeles businessman Bill Simon, has stayed mostly above the fray, though spokesman Jeff Flint said Thursday that Davis should give back the Enron donations. Davis aides said they don’t plan to.
Jones on Thursday focused on $10,000 Enron donated in 1996 to an effort Riordan supported as mayor of Los Angeles to help the city’s Department of Water and Power compete in the state’s newly deregulated energy market.
The donation was to a committee supporting three 1996 propositions — G, I and J — that allowed DWP to market excess capacity, invest more aggressively and hire more outside experts. All three passed.
At the time Enron was competing for a contract with DWP that it didn’t get, and Riordan press deputy Matt Szabo denied Enron benefitted from its contribution.
Jones also mentioned a $500 check Riordan got from Enron that he’s subsequently returned, and $100,000 Enron contributed for the 2000 Democratic National Convention, which Riordan was instrumental in bringing to Los Angeles.
Though he produced no evidence suggesting Davis or Riordan were influenced by Enron, Jones charged they’re “two sides of the same coin” on the issue. Riordan and Davis both met with former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, Davis on a handful of occasions and Riordan once in a group setting.
“I am adverse to fielding a candidate out of our primary that cannot campaign against Gray Davis on this most important issue, and I think Mr. Riordan is basically disarmed on it,” said Jones, who’s lagging in polls behind Simon and Riordan, the GOP front-runner.
Meanwhile, though Jones and Riordan have attacked Davis over his meetings with Lay, both demurred when questioned about similar conflict-of-interest allegations swirling around the Bush administration’s contact with Enron.
“Dick Riordan’s running for governor. He’s focused on and concerned with the state of California,” Szabo said.