Searching for Assemblyman Keene

Since he became our representative last November, Rick Keene has stopped talking to the News & Review and even taken the paper off his press-contact list. We wanted to know why.

KEENE IN THE HEADLIGHTS <br>Assemblyman Rick Keene has been about as visible and talkative as Bigfoot, at least as far as the News &amp; Review is concerned. Here, on the floor of the Assembly Chambers in Sacramento, Keene is approached (and surprised) by the reporter.

KEENE IN THE HEADLIGHTS
Assemblyman Rick Keene has been about as visible and talkative as Bigfoot, at least as far as the News & Review is concerned. Here, on the floor of the Assembly Chambers in Sacramento, Keene is approached (and surprised) by the reporter.

Photo By Tom Angel

So it had come to this. Assemblyman Rick Keene’s deafening silence toward the News & Review in recent months had forced our hand.

At 7 o’clock on the morning of July 10, I found myself driving to Sacramento with photographer Tom Angel to seek out and record Keene playing his role of 3rd District representative on the floor of the Assembly.

Why had Keene shut this paper, which has the largest circulation in his district, out of his political life? That’s what we intended to find out. We’d heard rumblings from Cliff Wagner, Keene’s chief of staff, that our coverage of his boss had been too hostile. We’d asked for specifics but received none.

Keene, a former Chico city councilman, was elected last November. The News & Review is a well-established newspaper that has reported on politics, both local and state, for more than 25 years and has more readers than the local daily.

But since he moved from the City Council to the Assembly, Keene’s become increasingly difficult to reach, at least for us. We’ve seen his face and read his quotes in other local media, but our calls and e-mails have gone unreturned, and our fax machine does not receive press releases from Keene’s office.

This situation cannot continue, I thought, as we drove toward the state capital.

At first we figured Keene’s silence was simply the result of an overwhelmed freshman lawmaker finding his way, physically and politically, through the maze of halls in the Capitol. But when I called Keene’s office earlier this year to request to spend a day shadowing him for a story, Cliff Wagner, his chief of staff, whom I’ve know for a number of years, called back—four days later—and said no dice. That is when the word “hostile” first surfaced.

“Frankly, you’ve been too hostile to the assemblyman,” Wagner told me.

A few weeks later I ran into Keene at the local Dairy Queen, and he used the word as well.

Reviewing our past stories on Keene, I found nothing that came anywhere near hostility. We’d critiqued his math on the matter of the state car tax and asked why he chose as his state-leased vehicle a Yukon SUV, noting its expense and poor mileage for a guy who has to drive 200 miles a day to work and back.

But that was as hostile as it got; we even endorsed him in the March primary last year.

As we drove through Rep. Wally Herger’s old stomping grounds along Highway 70 in Rio Oso, I thought of the relationship we’ve had with the congressman. We’ve never endorsed him. We’ve questioned his lack of military service during the Vietnam War. We’ve ridiculed his unquestioning (and unimaginative) devotion to the Republican Party, and we’ve even pointed out that his first, very short marriage was to his high-school sweetheart a year before she graduated. Potentially embarrassing stuff. But Herger’s office returns our calls, and he even stops by the office once or twice a year to say hi.

In contrast, Keene’s cut us off for no specific reason. The hostility has even spilled over to one of our sister papers. Last month Sacramento News & Review reporter Jeff Kearns got a taste of it while trying to talk to Keene during a fund-raising event with the California Restaurant Association.

Keene and fellow freshman Assemblymember Doug LaMalfa were pouring bottles of Sierra Nevada Summerfest beer for CRA lobbyists at $3,000 a sponsor. The restaurant association is located in an old bank building a few blocks from the Capitol.

When Kearns and photographer Larry Dalton walked in, Keene’s chief fund-raiser, John Bovee, told them to wait outside, that he’d ask Keene to come out and talk with them.

They did so. Five minutes later Wagner appeared.

“I don’t know what you’re doing, but there won’t be any comments today, OK?” he told Kearns and Dalton. “John [Bovee] had indicated that he said he would mention to the [assembly]member, and I’m here to let you know that there won’t be any comments forthcoming. It has nothing to do with you. Contact Tom Gascoyne at the Chico News & Review, and he can fill you in.”

“About what?” asked a confused Kearns. “About this?”

“There won’t be any comment today,” repeated Wagner.

“What does Tom have to do with it?” Kearns asked. “We work at a different paper.”

“I appreciate that,” said Wagner before disappearing back inside the building.

How deep did this conspiracy of silence go? Was it just Keene and Wagner or did it include all of the assemblyman’s staff?

I made a number of calls to his secretary, Lauren, including one on July 3 to find out details of Keene’s participation in Chico Fourth of July celebrations. But when I asked her about her boss’s July 4 schedule, she was evasive.

“Just wondering what time Mr. Keene is going to be in town for the Let Liberty Ring event. I’ve gotten that information from Congressman Herger and Jane Dolan—she’s our supervisor.”

“Um, I assume he’s doing the same thing that they are,” Lauren replied. “I don’t know. That is a district thing.”

The next day I showed up at the Let Freedom Ring celebration, walked over to the organizers’ table and asked, “Have you seen Rick Keene?”

“No, but he’s supposed to sign in,” I was told.

The next thing I knew, he was sitting on stage with Herger, Dolan and Chico Mayor Maureen Kirk, waiting to give a political pep talk.

I walked behind the stage, which was covered by a blue-and-white tent, and got as close as I could without becoming a threat in this era of the Patriot Act. I snapped a photo of Keene just as he spotted me and waved. Or was he trying to cover his face?

I mouthed the words, “I want to talk with you.” He nodded his head, as if he understood.

In his speech, Keene talked about how the state Legislature, gripped in combat over the state budget, is made up of a “bunch of nuts.”

Mayor Kirk, who followed Keene, mentioned how lucky we are to have such readily accessible representatives.

“I can tell you that I’m accessible, Jane is accessible, Rick and Wally are accessible. That’s one of the things that makes this a great country—participation!”

I made a mental note to tell the mayor the next time I see her that Keene is not that accessible.

Later that day I e-mailed Keene, saying I regretted that we hadn’t been able to talk at the Let Liberty Ring festivities. “I’d like to get together and interview you about your new job,” I continued. “I’ll be coming down to see you soon. I like the person who answers your phone in Sacto. Lauren. She is very nice.

The next day I got an e-mail from Wagner telling me he’d passed my message to Keene.

Two days before our trip to Sacramento, Keene was on local television’s Northern California News, being interviewed about state budget matters by anchor Matt Keller.

Why will he talk to Keller and not us? I wondered.

COFFEE CLUB <br>Keene confers with fellow Assemblymembers John Benoit, R-Riverside, and Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, on the Assembly floor while waiting for the president of Spain to give an address.

Photo By Tom Angel

Scott Howard, NCN news director, later told me that getting Keene’s cooperation wasn’t difficult for his news agency.

“He’s very accessible,” Howard said. “That week he was in the area and agreed to come by. I walked him through the doors of the station. Yeah, he’s accessible.”

I called Lauren on Wednesday, July 9, the day before our trip to Sacramento to try to hook up with Keene. I wanted to know what his schedule was for the next day.

“What is this, Thursday?” Lauren asked.

“No, it’s Wednesday.”

“Oh, it’s been a hectic day already!”

“What’s a good time to see Rick tomorrow?”

“Well, the floor session schedule has already changed on us three times, so I can’t tell you.”

“OK, we’ll take our chances.”

“OK.”

Next I called Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson’s office and learned that the following day José María Aznar, the president of Spain, would be addressing a joint session of the Legislature at about 10 a.m. I told the woman in Wesson’s office who was answering my questions that I was having trouble getting cooperation from or even in touch with my assemblyman, Rick Keene. She laughed and said she could give me a media pass so I could get on the floor of the Assembly and see Keene.

Now Tom Angel and I were on our way to find out what all this nonsense was about and try to clear the air.

We arrived in Sacramento at 9 a.m., parked and hurried to find Wesson’s office on the Capitol’s fourth floor. There we were given our media credentials for access to the Assembly chambers.

The back of the media card laid out the restrictions: “The holder of this guest card agrees to not engage in influencing the passage or defeat of legislation in the Assembly Chamber and to behave in a quiet and orderly fashion.”

I knew I had little chance of influencing Keene, the politician who refuses to talk to us, and I certainly had no plans to disrupt the legislative proceedings.

The Assembly floor, at least on this day when a dignitary was visiting, looked and felt like a cocktail party in a gated community. The hall was richly decorated with crystal chandeliers hovering over very well-dressed people with good haircuts. (In fact, I’m now convinced that a good haircut is key to obtaining political power.) Younger people with black wire-rim glasses and handsome business suits hustled about, carrying folders and brief cases. These were the legislative aides.

From the back of the room, standing on a boxed-in air-conditioning vent that runs the length of the wall, I could observe the proceedings. I spotted 2nd District Assembly member Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, who towered over the proceedings, even without his normally ever-present cowboy hat.

I spied Keene entering the room, carrying a paper cup of coffee. He looked good in a pea-green suit and (mandatory) stylish haircut—much better than I ever remember seeing him when he was on the City Council.

He appeared relaxed as he joked and hobnobbed with his fellow Assembly members who were waiting for the Spanish president to arrive. It all seemed so informal, this milling about and talking. You could almost forget that the state was having a budget crisis of unprecedented proportions and our governor was facing possible recall.

Eventually Keene took his seat at a desk on far left side of the room, at least from where I stood in the back.

I waited a few minutes and then realized I could safely approach him. And I did, walking up behind him and placing my hand on his left shoulder.

“Rick,” I said. “How are you doing?”

He turned, surprised and confused.

“Hey,” I said. “I brought Tom Angel along for a photo.”

“Should I look like a deer caught in headlights?” Keene asked, which is exactly what he already looked like.

I retreated and said we’d talk later. Keene nodded, still a bit confused by what had just happened.

Meanwhile, on the floor, business continued. Paul Koretz, D-W. Hollywood, asked his constituents for a moment of silence for Buddy Hackett, the rotund comedian and Koretz constituent who’d passed away a few days earlier. Silence was granted.

As the president’s speech grew closer, Keene was joined by state Senators Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, Rico Oller, R-San Andreas and Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City. First lady Sharon Davis was introduced as a woman of “great character,” and she—the wife of the most reviled man in the state—received enthusiastic applause.

Her husband took the podium, greeted the legislators, President Aznar and his entourage in Spanish and then in English noted that Spanish roots ran deep in California.

The governor, or at least the office, was richly applauded, and the Spanish president, who looked like a cross between a young Chico State University President Manuel Esteban and the late entertainer/congressman Sonny Bono, was introduced.

Keene, Aanestad and Leslie donned the translator headphones to listen to the speech, which was delivered in the president’s native tongue. Oller, who later said he’s been brushing up on his Spanish, opted to do without.

I heard the president say “terrorismo,” which was followed by enthusiastic applause. Then I thought I heard him say “George Foreman” but was most likely mistaken.

At the end of the talk, Oller was the first to stand for the ovation, which in the post-speech words of Speaker Wesson was “the record for the longest applause ever in this building.”

Oller told me the speech was heavy on free trade.

After the speech and the president’s and governor’s grand exit, the Assembly took a break, and the four representatives agreed to go out onto the black-and-white-tile-floored balcony for photos.

We went back in after a brief time, and the Assembly members resumed business.

We watched for a while and then told Keene we were taking an early lunch break and that we would come back and see him in his office. He said sure.

For lunch we walked across L Street to the Capital Garage Coffee Café and sat next to a couple of Highway Patrol officers, who drank coffee and discussed with a young, slim, tattoo-covered and decidedly punkish male café worker the clear advantages of having a slim waistline when it comes to buying pants, especially during a pant sale.

“The 32s to 38s are the first to go,” the café man said.

DESK SET <br>Keene, foreground listens to and takes in the action on the floor, while fellow Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, makes a cell-phone call.

Photo By Tom Angel

The patrolmen nodded, as if they’d never considered that angle before.

Seeing these otherwise social opposites engaged in such pleasant conversation and buoyed by the earlier success of our visit to the floor of the Assembly, I announced to Angel that I was ready to bury the hatchet with Keene.

“This is just silly,” I told him as we walked back to the Capitol. “It’s time to end this nonsense.”

We checked our vehicle, put more change in the two-hour meter and headed back to see Keene. At this point, I was feeling pretty good about the whole adventure. As we got closer to the Capitol, we saw an entourage of limousines, SUVs and white Caltrans vehicles pulling out of the east parking lot driveway. It was President Aznar.

Seeing the president’s motorcade, getting that close to history—although the Spanish just haven’t been the same global power since the defeat of the Armada—I was feeling like a part of the system here in Sacramento. Sure, I could use a better haircut and nicer clothes, but these men and women put their pants on one leg at a time, and I was on my way back to see my old acquaintance, Assemblyman Rick Keene.

I’ve known Keene for close to 10 years, and we’ve exchanged pleasantries and had light-hearted conversations and generally friendly exchanges as well as a heated debate a time or two.

Keene’s office is on the fifth floor of the newer Capitol Annex, room 5160. Along the way we passed a glass-cased display depicting the bounties of Butte County—photos of almond orchards and a little state map with the outline of the county highlighted.

I asked Angel to take a photo of my standing by the case, looking like a visiting hick and pointing to the map. Angel couldn’t get the flash quite right, and as a result I had to stand by the case much longer than was comfortable. Slick-looking men in well-pressed suits and black leather shoes, guys younger than me, walked by and snickered as I posed.

When we found the office and went in, Keene was on a cell phone, firming up his lunch plans.

Lauren was at her desk, and I introduced myself.

Once Keene had finished his call, I complimented him on his office accoutrements and stuck out my hand in a genuine desire to get past all of this.

“Hey man, let’s bury the hatchet,” I said.

But Keene was not exactly receptive, and the next thing I knew we were in his back office, where his walnut desk sits in front of a built-in wooden bookshelf lined with legislative works.

For the next 20 minutes Keene accused me of being unfair toward him in this paper. I asked for a specific example. He said I wrote that he had, as a state-issued vehicle, a Yukon SUV, but that I didn’t report that he paid for some of the lease himself.

“Yes I did, Rick,” I told him. “I said Rick pays the extra $100 a month the state allowance doesn’t cover.”

Then Rick told me I’d written that his Yukon carries nine people. Not true, he said. It carries only five.

I told him that I thought his problems with our paper were the result of our linking him repeatedly to local political operative John Gillander.

Keene employed Gillander during last year’s primary election to gather information on Keene’s opponents. The burly political hack has had numerous brushes with the law and was set to begin a jury trial in Butte County Superior Court on July 23 on charges of battery on an off-duty California Fish & Game warden.

Keene denied that theory emphatically, but judging by the anger in his eyes I figured I’d hit on something.

I asked Keene why he never returned our e-mail and phone inquiries. He said it was because his office gets up to 500 a day.

Am I not a constituent? I asked. Yes, he said, but only one of 440,000.

I then got to the heart of the matter and asked Keene if he had made the conscious decision to remove the News & Review from his press-contact list.

He said yes, he had.

I told him I thought that was illegal. He replied, “What, are you going to sue me?”

I told him I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

“Well, until we get fair treatment,” he said, “we’ll continue the policy of not sending press releases.”

I pointed out to Keene that he was creating a classic “Catch-22.”

“How can we write something fair if you won’t communicate with us?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders.

And that’s how it ended. We hadn’t established a long relationship, but on the other hand I hadn’t been dragged away and jailed.

When I came back to Chico I talked with a couple of media law attorneys as well as Tim Crews, publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror. A few years ago Crews filed a motion in federal court asking that the Glenn County district attorney continue to distribute press releases to his paper.

The day he filed, the DA relented.

“This is about the right to equal access,” Crews said. “[Keene] does not have to give you an interview, like you or talk to you. But he does have to give you the same material he gives the rest of the press as far as press conferences and press releases.”

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, based in Sacramento, went further.

What Keene is doing, Ewert said, is “flatly unconstitutional. He can’t discriminate among news agencies. He is attempting to discriminate based on viewpoint. He does not have that luxury as a member of the Legislature.”

Ewert said there is a long list of court cases regarding the matter.

“You have the right of access,” he said. “You can’t make him talk, but once he decides to talk he has to include you in his audience. And the rule of equal convenience says that, not only must government agencies provide with equal access, they must also provide you with equal convenience.

“Your constitutional rights have been violated. He is discriminating against your organization while still talking to other organizations. He is preventing you from getting equal access to the same information.”

Terry Francke, legal counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, also in Sacramento, agreed.

“If he were simply reaching into a box and pulling out names [of the media to talk with], nothing could be done about it. But there are a number of cases that come under the First Amendment that basically say a public office holder may not blacklist a news organization because he feels others are fairer.”

Are you reading this, Rick?

Epilogue: I’ve received two unsolicited calls from Keene’s chief of staff, Cliff Wagner, since I began working on the story. In the first he asked me about my request for Keene’s personal allowances and spending records from the Assembly Rules Committee. The second call was to let me know Wagner had forwarded my latest e-mail to his boss. We’re making progress.