COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

Will greedy billionaire’s intimidation attempt win?

No one spent more money trying to influence California politics during last year’s election season than the billionaire Munger siblings, Molly and Charles Jr., the children of Charles Munger Sr., who has provided them piles of money he made as the business partner of famed investor Warren Buffett.

Molly spent just short of $45 million on a failed attempt to raise taxes on almost all Californians to benefit public schools from kindergarten through high school.

Meanwhile, the $37 million put out by Charles Jr., a physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center south of San Francisco, went toward efforts to defeat Gov. Brown’s relatively modest tax increase proposition and to push for the latest incarnation of the three-time-loser “paycheck protection” plan aimed at reducing the political power of workers and their unions.

But Charles Munger Jr. was also active on the intimidation front. This effort demonstrated a gross disregard for the future ability of Californians to challenge initiatives and other laws.

It stemmed from Munger’s 2010 investment in Proposition 14, which established the “top two” primary election system that last fall produced numerous runoff races matching members of the same parties.

Minor political parties considered themselves the prime victims of the new system, whose hope it was (still is) to put more moderates into state offices and break some of the partisan deadlocks that often afflict California and the nation.

Top two cost minor parties like the Libertarians, Greens, American Independent and Peace and Freedom their usual spots on the November ballot. Of course, their members had the same opportunities to run and to present their ideas as anyone else during the primary. None advanced to a runoff.

Rather than going back to the drawing board and devising ways to develop more mass appeal, they and their supporters sued the state. Enter Munger, as an intervenor. He contended state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Debra Bowen were not equipped to defend Proposition 14 on their own. This was entirely his choice.

Munger, as usual, spent big, hiring a prominent, politically-connected law firm with offices in Sacramento and Marin County to make his case.

When the plaintiffs, led by 69-year-old minor-party advocate Richard Winger, longtime publisher of the Ballot Access News blog, lost the case, Munger insisted they be dunned for his legal fees. A San Francisco Superior Court judge assessed Winger and his fellow plaintiffs $243,000, of which Winger is liable for one-fifth as things now stand. He says paying that sum would just about break him and likely put his blog out of business.

It’s clear Munger doesn’t need the money. It’s also clear he wants no mere citizen activists to interfere with any of his future efforts. Keep the world safe for billionaires, seems to be his motive. His lawyers have refused to answer questions on why they’re intent on collecting from people exponentially less wealthy than Munger.

But Winger and his fellow plaintiffs are not meekly accepting the trial judge’s assessment. They’ve appealed to the state Court of Appeals and they may have a better shot at winning there than they did in the late October hearing where that judge denied them so much as a re-hearing on the issues of the fees.

While their lawsuit was pursued by the private practitioner attorney Gautam Dutta of Hayward, the appeal has been picked up on a pro bono basis by Andrew Byrnes, a partner in the large international law firm of Covington and Burling, who has considerable experience in election law and some clout of his own: He’s co-chair of the finance committee of the state Democratic Party.

Since the junior Munger has been most active over the years on behalf of Republican-backed measures, this can now be seen in a political context, with a major behind-the-scenes Democrat moving against a GOP moneybag.

Like Munger’s attorneys, Byrnes says little about the appeal.

But most large law firms don’t expend unpaid time of their partners on cases they deem insignificant. So it’s clear Covington and Burling agrees with those who see Munger’s insisting on collecting what is a pittance to him but an enormous sum to those who might have to pay as an attempt to intimidate future possible plaintiffs from challenging any of his upcoming efforts.

Whether or not you agree with Winger and friends that top two should go (and this column has frequently disagreed with them), it’s clear the large fee assessment does not serve the overall public interest. The more that can be done to overturn it and make the world a little more uncertain for billionaires, the better.

Email Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft-cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to californiafocus.net.

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