Honoring Jim Nielsen

Should this scofflaw be a commencement speaker?

The announcement that Assemblyman Jim Nielsen is to be the honored speaker at Chico State’s graduation ceremonies this weekend comes as a surprise. Nielsen is one of the Republican naysayers in the Legislature who are refusing to support an extension of certain temporary taxes now in place. If they get their way, the state universities will face further crippling budget cuts and higher tuition costs.

Besides, the university isn’t even in Nielsen’s district; it’s in Dan Logue’s. I suppose it’s appropriate, in an ironic way, for Nielsen to speak in Logue’s district, since he doesn’t even live in his own District 2. He’s registered to vote there, but as the CN&R has documented he actually lives in Woodland, outside his district.

That may seem like small potatoes, but in fact lying about one’s domicile when registering to vote is considered perjury, a felony. Rodney Wright, a Democratic state senator in the Los Angeles area, is currently facing felony charges for doing pretty much the same thing. The difference is that the L.A. district attorney did his job and applied the law, while Tehama County D.A. Gregg Cohen, a staunch supporter of Nielsen, has done nothing.

Nielsen has fibbed about his digs before. Back in the 1980s, when his state Senate district was redrawn following the 1980 census and he no longer lived in it, he rented an apartment inside the district and said he lived there. The apartment was never used.

I e-mailed university President Paul Zingg, asking him why Nielsen had been selected. He responded that Nielsen “has been a great friend of this campus and the CSU. He battled hard for capital projects for this campus when others in Sacramento wanted to deny them.”

Zingg went on to say that Nielsen “is here because he has supported Chico State, the CSU, and the vision of accessible, affordable, quality public higher education in California. And that is how I will introduce him.”

I also talked with campus spokesman Joe Wills, who told me Nielsen had a sincere interest in the long-term health of the universities, was involved in making revisions to the master plan, and was expected to talk about that in his speech.

Fair enough. But what I only hinted at in my message to President Zingg was that, as former CN&R Editor George Thurlow documented in an exhaustive investigative piece in October 1990, Nielsen’s ethical lapses went well beyond lying about his residence. Among other things, during his tenure as a state senator (1978-90), he took a salary from a major pesticide distributor while working to kill pesticide reform bills; funneled campaign funds to his wife as income; and lobbied for and then voted for a $500,000 state grant, the bulk of which ended up going to a cogeneration plant in Williams in which he and his wife had a business interest.

Our cover story this week is about the importance of second chances. I’d like to give Jim Nielsen the benefit of the doubt and believe he has the university’s best interests at heart. But I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to admit he doesn’t live in a doublewide in Gerber.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.