By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Brian Bennett is shameless. While a closeted homosexual in the 1980s and '90s, Bennett proudly served as chief of staff and travel companion to Orange County's Bob Dornan, arguably the most viciously anti-gay congressman in U.S. history. The conservative activist endured Dornan's wrath when he publicly announced his own sexuality in 1997. But Bennett—ever loyal—continued to defend and heap praise, ludicrous though it was, on his former boss.
Nowadays, Dornan is an irrelevant, Christian-radio talk-show host stuck in 50-year-old Cold War politics, and Bennett has found himself on the wrong side in yet another political controversy: he is vice president of external affairs for Southern California Edison (SCE), the privately owned electric monopoly now seeking additional massive public subsidies because the deregulation plan it sponsored in 1996 has failed so miserably. It's Bennett's task to soften public resistance to an estimated $12 billion corporate-welfare package state lawmakers are now contemplating for Edison shareholders.
"We are pulling out all the stops," Bennett recently told the Long Beach Press-Telegram. "When you have a gun to your head as this one does, and it's called bankruptcy, you will do whatever you have to do to keep your company afloat and restored to solvency."
Californians would do well to keep those words in mind.
It's unknown exactly what the gay conservative was doing at Dornan's side for all those years, but it is clear that by the time Bennett left, he had learned well the art of prevarication. As a January audit by the California Public Utilities Commission proved, SCE is in serious financial trouble only if you believe the company's cooked books. Since 1997, SCE has quietly diverted $5 billion in profits from utility ratepayers to an unregulated holding company it created, Edison International. In addition, SCE and its affiliated businesses have untouched assets totaling more than $30 billion around the country and the world. Yet utility executives—accustomed to getting their way in Sacramento—adamantly refuse to tap any of these assets to help end the crisis. John Bryson, chairman of Edison International and an architect of the infamous deregulation law, has said it would be "unfair" for his shareholders to use their resources. He insists that ratepayers and the government shoulder the bulk of the costs of cleaning up the deregulation mess. The mess has so far cost the public more than $50 billion.
Bennett refuses to speak to the OC Weekly but has told other papers that Edison is using tactics that have beaten back pro-consumer efforts in the past. In May, the impoverished utility spent more than $3 million on a statewide radio and TV ad campaign designed to sell ratepayers on the idea of jacking up their rates to save the company. Edison has also hired a Virginia-based phone-banking service to encourage ratepayers to lobby their lawmakers on behalf of the company. On May 17, Edison scored a coup when Governor Gray Davis hired a pair of the utility's lobbyists as his communication advisers for six months at $30,000 a month.
Bennett's tactics throughout this crisis would likely bring a crooked smile to the face of his former boss. Turning reality on its head as Dornan so often did, the Edison PR executive wants the public to believe that a bailout is not for the benefit of a multinational conglomerate but for the common man. To help accomplish this propaganda goal, Bennett offered a Press-Telegram reporter access to 67-year-old Long Beach resident Berry Yolken and his retired schoolteacher wife, Audrey, as the human face of Edison's corporate pain.
The couple, who are Edison stockholders, toldPress-Telegram reporter Will Shok that Edison is a victim. At the behind-the-scenes urging of Bennett's PR department, they recently called their state assemblyman to demand an immediate bailout.
"I told [the assemblyman] to go ahead and fix the problem," said Yolken.
They told Shok something else: if the government doesn't approve the taxpayer-funded subsidy to the private company, the consequences will be disastrous—for shareholders. The Yolkens, who live in a gated community less than two miles from the Pacific Ocean, say they won't be able to buy two new cars.