News & Views from 465 California Street

Broken Sacramento

Clint Reilly

One of the most egregious examples of the broken system in Sacramento is the dual role of legislator/lobbyist played by one key leader — former President Pro Tem John L. Burton when he was Assemblyman, State Senator, and President pro tem of the State Senate. I first met Burton when I was managing Barbara Boxer’s campaign for Congress in 1982. Burton had announced his retirement from Congress because he suffered from a major drug problem. His chosen successor was Marin Supervisor Barbara Boxer, who I knew and had helped over the years. The problem, however, was that Burton was still active in Boxer’s campaign. Several times an incoherent Burton insisted that I attend 7:00 AM meetings in his office on campaign strategy. I dutifully arrived on time. But Burton never showed up. Usually he would materialize unannounced in my office when I was not there and wander the halls intimidating my staff with his irrational behavior. Frantic phone calls and meetings were filled with ranting and incomprehensible speeches. He was clearly still using drugs during the campaign while he was a United States Congressman and presented a real danger to the success of Boxer’s campaign. Nevertheless, we won by 20% over a tough opponent. After the campaign, Burton entered rehab and later obtained a six figure part-time job in Sacramento at taxpayers’ expense from his close friend Speaker Willie Brown. Eventually, Burton ran successfully for the Assembly and State Senate where he became President pro tem of the Senate. During his years in the Assembly and Senate, and since being termed out of the legislature in 2004, Burton has maintained a lucrative lobbying law practice at The Merchants Exchange Building in San Francisco.

Research into Burton’s filings with the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento reveals that Burton owns millions of dollars of stocks and real estate. In 2002 alone, Burton reported owning stakes valued at between $10,000 and $100,000 in each of the following public companies: Alcoa Aluminum, American Express, Nautilus Leasing Services, Meeker Oil and Gas, Baxter International, Cisco Systems, Citigroup, Charles Schwab, Cardinal Health, Clear Channel Communications, Colgate-Palmolive, Dell Computer, Dow Chemical Co., First Data, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, HCA Health Care, Home Depot, IBM, Intel, Kellogg Company, Kroger, KLA Tencore, Marriott International, Microsoft, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, Morgan Stanley, Nokia, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Qualcomm, Safeway Stores, SBC Communications, Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments, Verizon, Viacom, Wal-Mart Stores, Waste Management …and others.

John Burton’s real estate holdings include multiple properties in San Francisco and Sacramento as well as real estate partnerships and numerous second mortgages which require holders to make interest payments directly to Burton.

State records also confirm that while an elected State Senator, John L. Burton lobbied on behalf of corporations for transit advertising contracts on Muni Buses, artificial turf at Golden Gate Park, carpets at the San Francisco International Airport, telecom towers on Bay Area hilltops, high-rise office buildings, development projects, parking lots and more. A lucrative working relationship with a Bay Area mega-lobbyist enabled Burton to conceal the identity of many special interest clients.

When he left office Burton squirreled away a secret two million-dollar slush fund from California’s most powerful special interests, which he has used in political campaigns to smear political opponents. Burton spent nearly $800,000 from this fund against a single political opponent in 2006 when he was out of office. And state taxpayers subsidize Burton’s daughter, Kimiko (a former San Francisco Public Defender), who has a lucrative appointment as a California inheritance tax appraiser.

How can a State Senate Leader be an independent voice for the public interest when he is literally on the payroll of special interests while serving in elective office?

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