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High-Speed Rail Critics Question Timing of Rail Firm’s Contribution to Brown Campaign

By on January 27, 2014
State Senator Andy Vidak

Critics of the state’s high-speed rail project are questioning the timing of a max-out campaign contribution by the state’s high-speed rail contractor to Governor Jerry Brown’s re-election campaign.

Last Friday, Brown asked the California Supreme Court for an expedited review – and reversal – of two lower court rulings that have halted the state’s high-speed rail system. Just three days prior to that request, Brown’s campaign accepted $27,200, the maximum campaign contribution allowed by law, from Tutor Perini, which has more than a $1 billion in outstanding contracts with the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Tutor Perini did not respond to an email request for comment about the campaign contribution. A spokesman for the Governor’s office denies that the campaign contribution was connected to the lawsuit.

“Contributions have no bearing whatsoever on the state’s legal filings,” said Evan Westrup, Brown’s spokesman.

Sen. Andy Vidak: Case of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”

The timing of the campaign contribution doesn’t sit well with the state Legislature’s leading critic of the $68 billion high-speed rail project.

“Let’s connect the dots,” said Senator Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, who has introduced a package of legislation “aimed at driving a stake through the heart” of the state’s bullet train. “The HSR Authority’s apparent bid-rigging lands this company a $1 billion contract, then this company gives Brown a max campaign contribution, and then Brown sues to bail the company out?”

“In farm country, this is called ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,'” Vidak said.

Last year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority awarded a billion dollar design-build contract to a joint venture headed by Tutor Perini Corporation. The contract is valued at approximately $985 million, plus an additional $53 million in provisional sums. Tutor Perini’s portion of the contract is approximately $500 million, according to the company’s website.

A controversial choice for the state’s high-speed rail project, Tutor Perini “had the lowest technical and safety rating of all the bidding companies, and the Authority board changed the rules to give Tutor the winning bid,” according to the Hanford Sentinel.

Rail Critic: “Unbelievably Brazen”

Brown Campaign Cash Tutor Perini High Speed Rail ContractorKevin Dayton, a Roseville-based policy consultant and a leading critic of the project, expressed disbelief with the timing of the campaign contribution.

“It’s unbelievably brazen,” said Dayton, who has frequently criticized the high-speed rail project. “The prime contractor for California High-Speed Rail maxes out to Brown’s re-election campaign, and later in the week Brown asks the state Supreme Court for extraordinary intervention to keep the project going even though it doesn’t comply with state law.”

He added, “This is a consequence of one-party rule: clearly Brown doesn’t think Republicans are capable of making him accountable for anything he does.”

Judge Puts High-Speed Rail Project on Hold

In November, a Sacramento Superior Court judge delivered “a major legal blow to the California bullet train” that effectively halted California’s plans to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles by rail. In two separate but related rulings, Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny found that the project violated voter-approved requirements on the construction process, and therefore, the California High-Speed Rail Authority could not legally tap $9 billion in bonds. Construction cost estimates for the project have more than doubled, since voters approved the project in 2008.

Before bond money can be used for construction, Proposition 1A requires the state to detail how the project will be financed, a requirement that hasn’t been met, according to the superior court judge.

In a lengthy 49-page petition, state officials are asking the high court to review and reverse those two Sacramento County Superior Court rulings.

“If left to stand, these lower court rulings would not only prevent the state from proceeding quickly to build high-speed rail as the Legislature and voters intended,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance, which is a plaintiff in the case. “They could also inject unwarranted uncertainty into the state’s ability to sell voter-approved bonds in a timely manner to finance public works projects.”

The state planned to build the first 130-mile segment with $3.24 billion in federal funds and $2.61 billion in Prop. 1A bond money, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Brown has also proposed using $250 million in new greenhouse gas fees—also known as cap-and-trade fees—to fund the project.

John Burton: Dry Heaves for High-Speed Rail

Even the state’s Democratic leaders are questioning the future of the state’s high-speed rail project. According to San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross, California Democratic Party Chair John Burton recently highlighted the projects delays:

After the latest grilling by congressional Republicans over funding, Dan Richard, chairman of the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority board, ran into the ever-blunt John Burton.

“How’s it going?” asked Burton, the state’s Democratic Party chairman.

“We’ve had a few hiccups,” Richard replied.

“Hiccups?” Burton said. “It sounds more like dry heaves to me.”

A number of lawmakers have told us privately that if there’s enough money for high-speed rail, there should be enough to restore social programs cut during the recession or put more children in preschool.

Read the Brown administration’s petition to the California Supreme Court.

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About John Hrabe

John Hrabe spends his time traveling the world as a freelance journalist. When he isn’t on an international flight, John writes about state and national politics for CalWatchdog.com, FlashReport.org, Huffington Post and the editorial pages of the Orange County Register. John’s most recent high-profile investigation uncovered the questionable labor practices of Goodwill Industries, the nonprofit organization famous for its secondhand clothing stores.

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