Governor's Pledge Could Collide With Prison Union's Power

By Dan Walters, Bee Columnist

As Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged the cheers of supporters and claimed the governorship last October, he pledged to shake up the back-scratching, corrosive politics that had made the Capitol a well-deserved laughingstock.

"For the people to win, politics as usual must lose," Schwarzenegger declared.

Only Schwarzenegger knows how he defines "politics as usual." We've already learned that the new governor often offers conditional, almost Clintonian definitions of his own words. But no matter how the term might be parsed, it must include the cozy and mutually beneficial relationship between Capitol politicians and the union that represents those who guard prison inmates.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) has evolved from virtual invisibility to the state's most politically powerful union, and one of its two or three most influential interest groups.

California had scarcely 20,000 men and women behind bars a generation ago, but the public's obsession with crime produced tougher laws has increased that eightfold to 160,000. The explosive growth of the Department of Corrections, now with more than 40,000 on its payroll, gave the fledgling CCPOA the fuel for its own expansion, and a prison guard with an ingenious flair for politics, Don Novey, spent millions of dollars of his members' money to acquire immense power over politicians who could affect their contracts and working conditions.

The CCPOA spent a million dollars to help Republican Pete Wilson win the governorship in 1990 and another $2 million to support Democrat Gray Davis' campaign in 1998, plus many millions more on legislative campaigns. CCPOA and its members prospered, with ever-fatter contracts and retirement benefits -- but the union's influence extended beyond such bread-and-butter matters to include, it's now evident, influence over the department's management.

Time after time, newspaper reporters and official investigations have revealed such influence. Occasionally, the Legislature has even delved into it -- mostly when cover-ups of bad or even illegal behavior behind prison walls are alleged. Another round of legislative hearings began Tuesday, this one sparked by allegations of a union-inspired cover-up of misconduct in a 2002 riot at Folsom Prison, and a federal judge's crackdown on the state's highest-security prison, Pelican Bay.

Last week, a special master appointed by federal Judge Thelton Henderson released a blistering report on Pelican Bay, condemning the department for tolerating a code of silence that creates "an overall atmosphere of deceit and corruption."

Max Lemon, an associate warden at Folsom, tearfully told state senators that the union continues to wield massive influence in the department and noted that he's had to seek personal protection for fear that he would be injured or killed for breaking the code of silence.

"I stand up and demand that Arnold Schwarzenegger stand up and be a man of his campaign promises," Lemon said.

"The California Department of Corrections needs correcting," Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, declared.

But Mike Jimenez, CCPOA's president, maintained the official union line that it is only protecting the rights of its members and doesn't tolerate misconduct. He blamed "media sensationalism and politics" for the perception that CCPOA wields too much power.

Schwarzenegger is the first recent governor not beholden to CCPOA. He has told legislators that he wants to clean up the prison system and pointedly changed the top management of the Department of Corrections and the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. His new corrections secretary, Roderick Hickman, told legislators that he was "sad and appalled at what I read" in the federal court report and will not tolerate cover-ups of wrongdoing.

But last week, just as the hearings were to begin, Schwarzenegger fired the independent inspector-general who is supposed to investigate allegations of prison wrongdoing, and has said he wants to move the investigative office into the official hierarchy. Those actions leave many wondering whether Schwarzenegger's definition of "politics as usual" will somehow exempt the CCPOA's hegemony.

See the article on Sacramento Bee website

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