Arnold Schwarzenegger Draws Criticism For Final Actions As Governor
Does Arnold Schwarzenegger rank among California's worst governors? Before leaving office, Schwarzenegger made a number of controversial appointments to paid state commissions, and reduced the prison sentence of a former lawmaker's son. We discuss the reduction of Esteban Nunez's16-year prison sentence, and Schwarzenegger's legacy.
Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times.
Ricky Young, watchdog editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Scott Lewis, chief executive officer of voiceofsandiego.org.
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
GLORIA PENNER: Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did not leave office this week in a blaze of glory during his 11th hour decision and appointments leaped criticism on him, as he folded his tent or had the tent folded for him. Tony, let's start with his reducing the prison sentence of former assembly speaker, Fabian Núñez. That's his son. Not the speaker. Why did this draw such opposition from San Diego district attorney Bonnie Dumanis to begin with?
PERRY: Well, Esteban Núñez, the son of Fabian, had been sent to 16 years in prison for his role in the killing of a 22-year-old college student just a few blocks from where we're sitting right here, in a late night brawl. And there was protest at the time that the sentence was too harsh, and that it should have been less, and that he had been promised less if he would plead guilty, but yet the judge stuck with 16 years as he did for the person who actually put the knife into the young man's heart and killed him. And all this was on appeal; blazing the way through the Courts with good attorneys on both sides claiming it's too harsh, no, it's not too harsh, and while that was going on, we looked up on a Sunday night, and in his last few hours on the job, the governor had what they call commuted, but really reduced is the better word, from 16 years to 7. Didn't ask the District Attorney down here about it, didn't notify the parents of Luis Santos, the young man who was killed. Didn't do anything but in the dead of night reduced it, and then the stuff really hit the fan. The parents of Luis Santos were outraged, Bonnie Dumanis was pretty annoyed. Jan Goldsmith, the City Attorney were pretty annoyed. A whole bunch of people were pretty annoyed of it wasn't the legalities of it. Because it's a debatable issue. Should Esteban gotten the same sentence as the fellow who actually put the knife into the heart, and was he actually promised a lesser sentence? Those are debatable legal issues, and Chuck Sevilla, an esteemed defense attorney, appellate attorney in San Diego, was working on that through the appellate process on behalf of Esteban Núñez. It wasn't the legal issues involved. It's the way it was done in the dead of night. And that's what got everybody upset. I don't know where it goes because Arnold is no longer governor.
GLORIA PENNER: That's right.
PERRY: And there isn't any appeal to a gubernatorial action like this. We're just gonna have to live with it, but it's got a lot of people really annoyed.
GLORIA PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, we're starting off talking about the commutation of the sentence of Esteban Núñez by the govern. And we'd like to know what your opinion is. Whether, you know, it was warrant, not warranted, whether it's political cronyism, what have you. Our number 1-888-895-KPBS. Let me ask you a lot bit about that, Scott Lewis. Was Schwarzenegger's action any more or less disturbing than other heads of state who have overruled court decisions as they're about to leave office and grant commutations and pardons? We hear about that all the time?
LEWIS: What's disturbing about it is is the access that the governor obviously gave to somebody to make their case to him. And you know, I don't think that Schwarzenegger sat there and said, look, this is my crony, I'm gonna give him a break. I think what he did was he said, this is my friend, I'm gonna listen to his case. I'm gonna give hymn a hearing. And I think he displayed a type of bleeding heart of he said, wow, that's a really compelling case, I'm gonna go ahead and commute the sentence of the problem with that is that that indicates that everybody in a similar type of circumstances deserves the same type of mercy around the state, and yet he as a leader never looked into that as, you know, the then and there's of people that are in prison right now that Tony found for the same basic offense have not been given that type of hearing. And that's the problem. If you only have access to justice because your father is an incredibly powerful political figure, that's disturbing and what else is disturbing is after the incident, Esteban Núñez told his friends, look, I'll take care of this, my dad's really powerful. I think we can figure this out. And it turns out that he actually did get access because his dad's so powerful. And I think that's what's so disturbing. And it's ironic, the whole incident was caused because he couldn't get into a frat party, and his dad's status as the most powerful man in the assembly couldn't get him into the frat party, but it could get him into the governor's office.
GLORIA PENNER: So that's sort of the old entitle the thing. I am the son of a powerful person issue therefore I am entitled. But Schwarzenegger is a Republican, and Fabian Núñez is a Democrat. Ricky, would that deflate the political crony accusation?
YOUNG: I don't think so. Arnold is a Republican, but many Republicans don't like him because of many nonrepublican things he did, including the reviled AB32 that put a lot of environmental regulations in place, that may be Arnold's only legacy that he's quite proud of, and he worked very closely with Núñez again as Tony pointed out. So they were close political allies, and it's not unusual for an executive at the end of their term to hand out some favors, and that was one of them. Now, I would say there's one thing I think merits pointing out out of fairness, and that is, I don't know to what extent, I wasn't on the coverage of this thing, but I don't know to what extent the judge was irritated by Núñez's bragging, well, my dad's connected, I'll get you off, and therefore threw the book at him, and as Tony said, gave him a bigger sentence than the plea bargain might have called for. So to the sense Arnold could serve a youthful purpose in checks and balances in our government by removing that bias from the sentence, I mean, key didn't kill somebody, he only stabbed somebody who didn't die. Maybe his sentence shouldn't have been 16 years like the guy who did kill someone. I know everybody's gonna jump on me, but I think it's important to think maybe Arnold was taking the bias out of the sentence.
PENNER: But what --
PERRY: Part of the agony of the Santos family was that Esteban Núñez had already been given, quote, a break. The charge was murder. He was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter. So the family was already aggrieved at the idea that someone who was involved with the death of their son, a few blocks from where we're sitting here at San Diego state university, was getting a break. To then look up and see him get, in their mind, another break, and they not having been given the right to protest it, victim's bill of rights be damned, that aggrieves them. I don't think that the judge threw the book at him because of influence. What he did do, how far, apparently is say something in the closed door meeting with the attorneys that suggested that if Esteban did plead guilty to manslaughter, he'd get a sentence of 7 to 11 issue where a man named Ryan jet, a two time lose are who put the knife into the heart of Santos would get 16. Then he goes out in court and gives them both 16 and that's when Fabian erupted.
GLORIA PENNER: Gentlemen, we're gonna take a break, and when we come back, we'll continue this discussion and take our callers as well. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, this is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.
This is the Editors Roundtable, I'm Gloria Penner, and I wish you had been here during the break because the conversation among the editors on Schwarzenegger's actions was hot and heavy, and we're gonna try to capsulize what we said during the break so you can join the conversation at any rate. Our number is 1 -- 888-895-5727. It's Ricky Young, Scott Lewis, and Tony Perry. And you, of course. So Ricky, we're gonna start with you.
YOUNG: Yeah, what I was jumping in, trying to say right before the brace was we don't want know to what extent the judge, in an effort not to zoom like he was favoring Esteban Núñez, issued the heavier sentence than he had indicated behind closed doors he was going to do. And to the extent that Arnold could take that bias out, you know, I think that's -- that might be a decent part of our checks and balances system.
GLORIA PENNER: All right. Let's hear from Ian in Solana Beach. Ian, you're on with the editors.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, Gloria.
GLORIA PENNER: Hi.
NEW SPEAKER: And to the editors. My question is the if willing: On the Morning Edition, when Bonnie Dumanis was interviewed, she pointed out that Esteban Núñez had stabbed to other people in addition to the victim who died. Now, surely that is an egregious act. And perhaps he could be tried on the attempt to kill the other two. They just happened to be lucky enough to survive. What do you editors think about that?
GLORIA PENNER: Okay, well, first of all of course it was These Days that Bonnie Dumanis was on, just to let you know, rather than morning edition. But your point is well taken. And we'll turn to Scott Lewis.
LEWIS: Well, the idea that Esteban Núñez was somewhat less culpable or somehow deserving of more community support than his colleague in this act is ludicrous to me in the sense that if they had both gotten in it separate cars and said, okay, we're gonna drive these cars into this group of young men, and his car doesn't happen to kill anyone, but the other guy's car actually does, has he acted in a way this the community should be more empathetic with or sympathetic? No. And then they drive to Sacramento and they burn the evidence, and it's a very sordid affair. And an ugly situation. I don't think he's done anything that the community should be more sympathetic with than his colleague did. And then the other thing that is really upsetting is that as Dumanis had pointed out in that interview is that Schwarzenegger did nothing to hear the other side of the story, to call the prosecutor, to call the victim's family. He listened to, like I said, he got advice, they got access to him, he listened to, apparently, the Núñez side of the story, and then he made his decision. And then he apparently expressed regret to Dumanis for not having sought out that opinion of that's just irresponsible and upsetting in a way that I think a lot of people are reacting to.
GLORIA PENNER: Okay, well, let us move on to one other aspect of this, Tony Perry because we cant really let it go without pointing out that even though it was his last day as governor Sunday, Schwarzenegger was busy appointing his legal staff to judgeship and former state senators and staff members and even the wife of a staff member to state commissions, which in some basis, pay more than a hundred and $28,000 a year. In fact, there was an appointment to two commissions that total about a hundred and $65,000 a year. Is this a clear financial reward from the former governor to political powers?
PERRY: Sure, I imagine you could see it that way. There are a lot of these jobs that have to be filled. Arnold actually came in, said he wanted to do away with a lot of these jobs, didn't do it, then he ends up appointing people to them. He picked people he knew, and in some cases, they were relatives and friends of. Some of this will be corrected by the new administration. But it's a handful of people. If I can zip back one moment to the Núñez, what is odd about this, about the Núñez is that it was one of a number of actions he took legally, but the only one that sort of jumped out, the only one that department seem to have very minute legal issues about drug usage, and it's the only one that had any whiff of somebody knowing somebody. The attorney that who filled out the commutation form on behalf of Esteban Núñez, Chuck Sevilla, and excellent attorney in San Diego, said he filled out the form December 2nd, and that was it. He never got a call, he was never part of a discussion. That was it. So his paper work goes up there, and in the age of transparency, this thing is -- it isn't opaque, this thing is totally dark. We have no idea what the decision making process and now Fabian Núñez may have impacted with his good buddy Arnold Schwarzenegger.
GLORIA PENNER: Okay, with, are that we're going to switch subjects otherwise we won't have time for the last one.