Kamala Harris’ rise to power has been a polarizing one to say the least. Since 2010, when she was elected California Attorney General, she has remained in the spotlight — for good and for bad. One could make a decent argument that no politician has been more rhetorically eyebrow-raising over the last decade (current President excluded). Her persona almost demands attention; a Democrat version of a “Law and Order” candidate with an undeniable appeal to the Obama/Clinton wing of the party that she hopes to represent in the 2020 general election for the presidency.
In fact, several of Hillary Clinton’s ex-campaign staff have migrated to Harris. In a way, the transition makes total sense. The two women share many similarities , the most prominent of them being their consistently close proximity to scandal (and all the attention that comes with it). Politics is cutthroat, especially in California, and for this reason Kamala Harris wields one of the biggest blades money can buy: SCRB Strategies.
SCRB, in its current form, is all-in on the Harris 2020 campaign for president — and to downplay their significance would be to ignore their impact on the way the California Senator is perceived, and how she rose to prominence so quickly while simultaneously coming through some politically and ethically sticky situations relatively unscathed. The firm behind Harris are no amateurs . In fact, they’re some of the best and most experienced political operatives and spin doctors in the game. They don’t play to lose; but the real question is: What rules do they play by?
SCRB Strategies is the current iteration of SCN Strategies, a political and financial sector consulting agency formed from Averell “Ace” Smith, Sean Clegg, and Dan Newman. By the time he went into practice with Clegg and Newman in 1996, Averell Smith had done opposition research for Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign and was on his way to helping former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein become a Senator.
Smith, who goes by the nickname “Ace”, was garnering a fierce reputation as a shark; someone who would come to literally strike fear in the hearts of his political opponents. Nobody could get out in front of a crisis quite like this guy. With the formation of SCN Strategies, he and his new partners were primed to dominate the California political landscape — and that’s exactly what they did.
For years, the partners of SCN managed a stable of A-List or soon-to-be establishment fixtures. In 2008, Smith was also state director for the CA, TX, and NC branches of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign (his leadership delivered primary victories in the first two). While Clinton’s bid wound up being unsuccessful, SCN returned to local politics (their bread and butter) with another feather in their cap. With Senator Barbara Boxer gearing up for re-election, the agency hit the ground running with newfound purpose, riding high on their elevated status among the political elite. In two years’ time, SCN would have their hands on every major political seat in California. Things were about to take off.
In 2010, then California Attorney General Jerry Brown, a client of SCN, announced he would be running for Governor. To fill the AG void, a young San Francisco District Attorney named Kamala Harris would run as his replacement. She would go on to win, of course; and SCN was along for the ride, and arguably in the driver’s seat. Not only was SCN instrumental in her win, but Jerry Brown also won the Governorship, and another SCN client, Gavin Newsom (now the current governor), would become his Lt. Governor.
It was a resounding victory for the firm. They were anointed “king-makers”. Their secretive nature, hardball approach, and media-focused messaging garnered them a reputation for being the go-to consulting agency in their field. They employed these tactics not just on candidates and state ballot measures (of which there were many), but also for massive corporations — some of which have been optically problematic and suspicion-raising, like their dealings with long-time California utility giant, Pacific Gas & Electric.
Here’s the thing: they’ve been doing it for a long time — right in front of us.
The history of SCRB/SCN is a complicated one, but it’s also a simple case study of the ethical dangers inherent in a system that allows private-sector consulting firms to simultaneously work for or represent elected officials AS WELL AS the corporations that would benefit the most from access to those officials.
In 2010, at the height of their influence and power, Pacific Gas & Electric executives donated $4,600 to Kamala Harris campaign for California Attorney General. At the time, PG&E was the largest power company in any state in the country. One can only assume, like every other conglomerate, they threw their money behind the candidate they believed would be least likely to disrupt their business interests.
Speaking of influence, there’s also the case of controversial former San Fransisco Mayor Willie Brown. Brown, a polarizing figure in his own right, recently penned an Op-Ed in the San Francisco Chronicle detailing a brief romantic relationship he claims he shared with Kamala Harris in the early 2000s.
In the piece, Brown claims he kickstarted her political career and increased her visibility by selecting her to serve on key committees and, among other things, generally boosting her profile in the circles that mattered. While most of the focus surrounding the story amounted to some version of Harris “sleeping her way to the top” (a lazy and disgusting take, in my opinion), that theory actually has little relevance when compared with the implications of Willie Brown’s other job . He lobbies for PG&E.
From the very beginning, PG&E seemed to have just as big an affinity for Kamala Harris as they did for Dianne Feinstein, the undisputed queen of California corporate political cash, and one of PG&E’s largest political beneficiaries (as she remains to this very day). Little did they know, they were going to need all the help — or as little resistance — as they could get.
On September 9, 2010, in San Bruno, CA, PG&E natural gas pipeline 132 exploded, sending a wall of fire reaching to the sky, killing 8 people and wounding more. It was a tragedy of negligence as the slow-churning investigations would reveal; corruption and greed had seemingly overrun the energy conglomerate at its highest levels. Civil inquiries and a joint State/Federal criminal investigation were opened, the litigation of which took more than 5 years.
While California AG Kamala Harris’ office did participate in the subsequent legal quagmire, she seemingly kept a very deliberate public distance from the situation. Then, in 2014, the San Francisco Chronicle uncovered emails showing PG&E’s vice president of regulatory relations, Brian Cherry, communicating to a top aide of the president of the California Public Utilities Commission Michael Keevey, that one prospective judge was a “major problem” and objected to another judge who had presided over a case in which PG&E had allegedly “gotten screwed”.
This became known as the “Judge Shopping” scandal, and while most involved were eventually fired and PG&E hit with a light $1 million dollar fine, calls were made from the mayor of San Bruno, Jerry Ruane, and even a state senator, for Harris’ office to open a criminal investigation into the whole situation.
Harris slow-walked the PG&E investigation
In response to their requests, Harris’ office “blew them off” as Ruane would later put it. Governor Jerry Brown was also pressured into taking sweeping action to punish the company. When asked, Harris’ team says she did open some kind of investigation — which is supposedly still being conducted all these years later — but seeing that she is now a U.S. Senator, that matter is more or less out of sight, out of mind. However, in the background of the craziness that was ensuing regarding the fallout from the PG&E explosion, a slightly different game was taking place.
For over a decade, PG&E has employed the lobbyist firm Sloat, Higgins, Jensen, and Associates to be their primary voice in the California legislature. In 2013, founding partner and political heavyweight Kevin Sloat was named in a wrongful termination lawsuit by an ex-employee. In the suit, the employee, Rhonda Smira, alleged Sloat had been hosting private fundraisers at his home or his firms’ property, where he would make countless illegal non-monetary donations to several elected officials and representatives that were directly involved in legislation that affected their clients.
Sloat’s firm would import cigars, wines and liquors, pass out baseball tickets and free golf outings at a casino owned by one of their clients. Smira, who was instructed to not record or submit any of these donations to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPCC) or the CA Secretary of State, states that a typical event would net up to $50,000 for the candidate or cause it was held for.
In the end, Sloat would be hit with a $133,000 fine — the largest ever for lobbying infractions — and the FPPC sent warning letters out to 37 officials who had benefited from Sloat’s illegalities. At the top of the list was Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom —arguably SCN’s biggest clients at the time. In fact, the following year, during the inquiry into the San Bruno PG&E explosion, more communications were uncovered between a Brown appointee at the Public Utilities Commission and a PG&E executive inferring that Dana Williamson— one of Brown’s advisors who previously worked for PG&E — would be contacting a party close to the situation and they should be “warned”.
On its face, the emails showed an unnerving coziness between the company and the authorities meant to be overseeing and regulating them. After this discovery, SCN’s Dan Newman, Brown’s long time advisor, got out in front as only he could — by announcing the return of over $9,000 in donations from PG&E executives. Time heals all wounds, apparently, because in 2018 it was reported that SCN Strategies was somehow involved in litigation proceedings for PG&E, though Newman declined to elaborate on the specifics of their involvement. By the end of last year, PG&E had paid SCN approximately $1.1 million for their services.
When it was all pretty much said and done, PG&E was hit with billions of dollars in fines from the California Public Utilities Commission for their transgressions. By 2016, California State and Federal prosecutors brought up 28 criminal charges, including violations of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 and obstruction of justice, with maximum fines that totaled almost $4 billion.
In the final analysis, though, under the auspices of Harris as California Attorney General, PG&E got essentially a slap on the wrist — the company was convicted on six counts, was ordered to pay only $3 million in fines and provide 10,000 hours of “community service”. No individuals were charged. “We are very pleased with the verdict and commend the jury for their hard work and thoughtful deliberation,” said Kamala Harris. “The California Department of Justice is proud to have worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and various federal and state partners to investigate and ultimately prosecute this important case.” PG&E did go on to settle $650 million in civil cases, but their insurance picking up $515 million of that, according to the company’s internal reports.
Although they have since overhauled their board and filed for bankruptcy, Pacific Gas & Electric’s presence can still very much be felt. A small $1000 donation from their in-house PAC to Kamala Harris’ Fearless for the People PAC is barely worth noting, especially because since 2015, PG&E has donated over $50,000 to her senatorial counterpart Dianne Feinstein.
While Feinstein may not presently be an SCRB/SCN client (she has worked with Averell Smith and Dan Newman many times in the past), her campaign chair Jeff Millman has close ties to the firm. Millman, who runs his own consultancy firm, worked with Averell Smith as North Carolina media director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. Afterwards, Millman joined SCN on Barbara Boxer’s 2010 Senate run.
During the Obama years, when GOP Congressman Darrell Issa was heading up the House Oversight Committee, Millman’s firm consulted on a project called the “Issa Files” — a trove of supposedly damning documents meant to discredit him. The group behind those files was called “The Third Lantern”; and it was founded by the members of SCN Strategies. Not much is known about the group (the website is now defunct), and Sean Clegg of SCN never would disclose who funded the operation.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a dark-money fueled smear campaign. Millman’s proximity and close working relationship with SCN makes perfect sense as to why a company like PG&E would continue to feel comfortable doing business out in the open with Feinstein, or anyone, considering their track record for corruption. Feinstein’s campaign isn’t the only thing they throw money at though: Since 2016, PG&E have donated almost $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), according to the Federal Elections Commission. That brings us to another former SCN client — Rep. Katie Porter.
A State Department intern before joining SCN, Erica Kwiatkowski was recruited by Averell Smith and quickly gained notoriety within the firm. She worked closely with their biggest clients — Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, and Kamala Harris — and in 2018, when UC Irvine professor Katie Porter announced she was running to represent California’s 45th district, the job of campaign manager fell to her.
That year, the DCCC paid SCN Strategies almost $650,000 for “media and general services”, which could be considered appropriate since SCN does produce many hyper-partisan campaign advertisements (they even wrangled Elizabeth Warren to do a spot endorsing Porter).
On June 15, 2018, the DCCC added Porter to their “Red to Blue” program, which entitled the candidates to extra financial and media resources facilitated by the entity. It’s as close to an endorsement as the DCCC makes. That very same day, the DCCC paid SCN Strategies $80,838 for “General Media services”.
Although she paid SCN nearly $600,000 and Kwiatkowski $135,000, it’s quite funny that Katie Porter’s campaign ended that year with right around $83,000 cash on hand. Though it’s likely a coincidence, SCN’s finances are so secretive and convoluted we’ll likely never know; but I’d be remiss not to mention the near exactitude of the two amounts. The biggest issues with ethical quandaries in the political finance sphere stem from the entities and individuals who consistently and intentionally put themselves in situations where such questions could even be asked of their character to begin with. SCN grew a reputation on a take-no-prisoners attitude; winning by any means. They’ve played both sides of the aisle for so long; and while the players may be different, the game is still the same.
The transition from SCN to SCRB
Sometime in late 2018/early 2019, Dan Newman left SCN Strategies. He still works closely with the firm, but has seemingly dedicated most of his time to running the political interests of now California Governor Gavin Newsom. To take his place, Smith and Clegg promoted a young up-and-comer named Juan Rodriguez from within their own ranks (a la Erica Kwiatkowski) and recruited Laphonza Butler from the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU was an organization that SCN worked closely with for years, and was instrumental in many successful ballot-measures promoted by the firm and it’s clients.
The agency was rebranded SCRB; and while the name is different, it appears to be business as usual. Rodriguez has been put on the fast track it seems — he’s currently the campaign manager for Kamala Harris presidential run. Butler, in addition to being a senior advisor to the Harris campaign (along with Smith and Clegg), has also been consulting for another company with close ties to the Senator — Uber.
In August of this year, VICE News published an article detailing possible conflicts of interest between the Harris campaign and Uber, citing Harris brother-in-law Tony West’s (Uber Senior Counsel) and SCRB’s Laphonza Butler’s proximity to both parties as a red flag.(SCRB has been paid $100,000 by Uber this year).
Uber would take a decent hit from a bill that Senator Harris has publicly supported, although it is reported they aren’t “actively lobbying” against it. West is quoted in the article as downplaying the relationships and also asserting that no improper lobbying has been done. One thing the VICE article misses, however, is the fact that not only has Tony West donated over $3,000 to Harris’ campaign (most under his first name, Derek), but in March of this year, Kamala Harris took a $2,800 campaign donation from Mark Weideman — founding partner of Uber’s long-time primary lobbying firm, The Weideman Group.
How did this go unnoticed? Was it not deemed relevant? When the principal of a corporation’s lobbying firm donates to a candidate their client has close personal and financial ties to, how much more conflicted do interests get? To make the circle complete, Harris has also received a $1,000 donation from Uber’s Director of California PR, Ramona Prieto. Prieto spent the last six years as the Director of Government Affairs and Public Relations at — you guessed it — Pacific Gas & Electric. It’s eerie how things work out.
The firm that runs Kamala Harris’ campaign has built an empire from their offices in San Francisco to the halls of Congress. They’ve monopolized California politics. Their clients hold almost every major elected position in the state. They’ve profited off double-dealing, questionable methods, and flexible ethics — undoubtedly because “that’s politics”, or something to that effect.
They may be one of the most powerful groups of people you’ve never heard of; and we need to pay attention to what they’re doing. Make no mistake, it’s a big ocean out there; and the sharks are the lifeguards.
SCRB, and by extension Kamala Harris, should forever be questioned about their dealings with PG&E, and I think the same questions should be asked about Uber. In an era where back-channel communications and shady deals are becoming easier than ever to maneuver, trying to maintain a sliver of integrity in our system is not just important — it’s necessary.
Consultancy groups like SCRB/SCN have been running a racket from the shadows for decades, manipulating the public and their politicians for their own financial gain and power-hungry egos. Its time we put the spotlight on them for a change.
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