The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has provided some elected officials with the opportunity to seize additional power, effectively blurring the lines between charity and influence peddling.
As one apparent example, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing new scrutiny over reports that he solicited a whopping $226 million in “behest donations” from various entities — including some companies that received no-bid contracts with the state.
Dubious public-private connections
Such donations are legal under state law, but critics claim it is ethically dubious for them to be made at the request of public officials.
Nevertheless, Newsom’s tally last year dwarfed the comparatively paltry $12 million raised in 2019.
On its surface, the surge in donations served a virtuous purpose amid the continued public health crisis. Healthcare firms Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente, for example, donated $45 million at the governor’s direction.
The companies were also selected to manage vaccine distribution, though, which has raised questions about a possible quid pro quo.
Meanwhile, Verily Life Sciences — a subsidiary of Google — reportedly received contracts for COVID-19 testing. Its parent company was one of the tech giants responsible for funding public service announcements across California last year that focused on the pandemic.
“It’s also beneficial to the tech companies”
At the time, Jonathan Mehta Stein, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Common Cause, said: “An advertising campaign to educate people about Covid-19 is beneficial to all. The key question is: Is it also beneficial to Governor Newsom? The answer is probably yes. It’s also beneficial to the tech companies.”
According to Reason, the spike in donations was unique among state officials to the governor, prompting speculation that he took advantage of his executive powers amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Of course, Newsom has come under attack on other fronts — most notably by flouting his own lockdown policies by dining inside a high-end restaurant last year. As it stands, he is the subject of growing calls for a recall election that could see him ousted from the governor’s mansion.
A lobbyist for Netflix hosted the infamous dinner at French Laundry and the video-streaming platform was among the media companies that made behested donations.
Networks including ABC and CBS were also involved, raising additional questions about whether Hollywood carved out an exception to COVID-19 protocols through these supposedly philanthropic exchanges of money.