Photo by David KawashimaIn early 2001—at the height of the deregulation energy crisis that left Californians paying skyrocketing power bills—Southern California Edison (SCE) worked to convince consumers that the company was also a victim of price gouging. In melodramatic dispatches from the corporate front lines, the Los Angeles Times and other mainstream newspapers repeatedly depicted SCE employees in "agony" because of "drastic budget cuts" and "traumatic . . . belt-tightening." The stories worked well in conjunction with a flurry of sympathy-seeking television and radio advertisements featuring SCE chairman John Bryson, who also sat on the board of directors of Times-Mirror, then the Times' parent company.
But a report released by federal officials in Washington, D.C., at the Weekly's request offers a rare glimpse at the lucrative world of publicly subsidized but privately owned power companies. The 15-page document also indicates that while SCE claimed it was nearing bankruptcy and thus received billions of dollars in public assistance from California taxpayers, the company likely continued to pay executives exorbitant salaries and huge bonuses.
The information is contained in filings by former SCE vice president for public relations Gaddi Vasquez, who last month won U.S. Senate confirmation to become George W. Bush's director of the Peace Corps. As part of his effort to take over the federal agency launched by President John F. Kennedy, Vasquez was required late last year to file a personal financial-disclosure report with the Office of Government Ethics.
The report shows that Vasquez will take a $30,000-per-year pay cut to serve in the federal government. But don't cry for the former Orange County supervisor, who, in 1994, helped lead the county into its disastrous $1.7 billion bankruptcy before joining SCE. In 2001, the utility company paid Vasquez more than $166,000 in annual base salary, gave him more than $268,000 in company stock, and tossed in a bonus of between $50,001 and $100,000.
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Due to loopholes in federal disclosure laws, Vasquez did not have to specify the exact amount of his bonus; nor did he have to reveal what is believed to have been an approximately $10,000-per-year SCE expense account. He also told federal authorities in November that Edison might pay him an additional unspecified "executive bonus" before he joined the Bush administration and that he would likely cash in SCE-supplied stock options possibly worth as much as $650,000.
In addition to lucrative SCE compensation, Vasquez also reported that last year he was paid $1,500 for two speeches (one by a Latino real-estate group and another by a South County church), $2,500 in consulting fees by Chapman University, and $1,800 for reserve duty with the Orange Police Department. The county retirement fund—the same one that Vasquez's fiscal mismanagement nearly destroyed during the bankruptcy—still owes him as much as $115,000. He reportedly owns as much as $15,000 in Disney stock and another $15,000 in stock in Univision Co., the Spanish-language TV network. In the 2000 campaign, he gave George W. Bush more than $106,000 in contributions.
Born in a dirt-poor Texas hellhole, Vasquez, now 46, parlayed his Latino face, fondness for Newport Beach real-estate developers and an articulate regurgitation of right-wing politics into a 1987 gubernatorial appointment to the county Board of Supervisors. From then until the county's bankruptcy debacle eight years later, Vasquez was considered the "rising Latino star"—the phrase practically became his title—of the California Republican Party. Refusing to take any responsibility for his documented role in the bankruptcy, he angrily fled office in 1995 with a public approval rating of barely 11 percent and landed the cushy, high-paying PR job with SCE, a haven for discredited Republicans. (The company's PR department includes Brian Bennett, the gay top aide to anti-homosexual ex-Congressman Bob Dornan, and Jo Ellen Allen, who used her position as vice chairman of the Orange County Republican Party to help lure unsuspecting elderly conservatives into her husband's fraudulent investment scams, court records show.)
Vasquez's financial disclosure reveals what SCE doesn't have to—what it pays such midlevel executives. But the company does have to file an earnings report with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Earlier this month, SCE—whose pleas of financial hardship lured at least $3.6 billion in government assistance last year—quietly reported that it earned its private shareholders an impressive $1.30 per share of stock.