The Friendship of Gavin Newsom and Jason Kinney Hints at Why the French Laundry Dinner Was More Than Just an Expensive Mistake

(AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has known lobbyist Jason Kinney, the man whose 50th birthday celebration at The French Laundry landed Newsom in hot water, for almost 20 years, according to Newsom. Kinney has been a paid and unpaid consultant for Newsom’s campaigns going back to Newsom’s San Francisco days and has been described as Newsom’s “fixer,” but also acts as Newsom’s speech writer and was the pivotal force behind helping then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom legalize marijuana in California.

After helping Newsom win the governorship in 2018, Kinney left his Capital Strategies lobbying firm become a part of Newsom’s transition team.

In reporting on Newsom’s transition to the Governor’s office, CalMatters wrote about Kinney:

A one-time speechwriter for Gov. Gray Davis, Kinney rose to a partnership at California Strategies by working with both elected officials and the corporations that seek to influence them. He has been a strategist for Newsom and Democrats in the state Senate while also being paid by corporate clients including AT&T and PhRMA.

In the cottage industry that is Capitol policymaking, this is not unheard of. Sacramento has a vast ecosystem of fixers and consultants who wield influence—some are lobbyists who represent businesses or unions, others are strategists or consultants who work for politicians. A powerful handful have figured out how to do both.

Kinney has run into occasional trouble walking that line. He was forced to register as a lobbyist in 2013, when he was fined by the state’s political watchdog for hiding his work to sway government decisions. Kinney acknowledged at the time that he broke state law by not formally registering and disclosing who was paying him.

Newsom was sworn in as governor on January 3, 2019. A few weeks later, Kinney registered as a lobbyist with Axiom Advisors. Kinney’s penchant for blurring the lines between lobbying and undue influence would rear its head once again.

Right around the time of the transition, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) was in a world of hurt. Not only had it been charged with causing the deadliest fire in California to date – the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the bucolic town of Paradise – but the utility corporation was serving a five-year sentence of probation for six federal felonies. They had been held responsible for the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion which killed 8 people and destroyed dozens of homes. A jury had recently convicted them of willfully breaking federal safety laws and obstructing the investigation.

In 2017 and ’18, state fire investigators cited PG&E as the cause of fires that killed 107 people.

Yet, the utility had the wherewithal to pour $208,400 into Newsom’s 2018 gubernatorial race. Newsom appeared to quickly repay the embattled monopoly, as ABC10 explained:

Some critics of PG&E believe the governor has given the company a gift in the form of this year’s hastily-passed legislation AB 1054, which is aimed at protecting power monopolies from financial trouble when they start future wildfires.

The legislation quickly sailed through the legislature, where PG&E also donated heavily to both political parties.

Eight out of every 10 lawmakers also accepted campaign funds from PG&E, despite the fact that the company had recently been convicted of federal crimes.

So when Newsom pushed to be a “broker” in PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings, watchdog groups saw a conflict of interest. Newsom, of course, was quick to deny it:

“If the suggestion is somehow I’m influenced by that, you’re wrong,” Newsom to Sacramento’s ABC10.

Fast forward to 2020. Kinney has been a partner with Axiom Advisors for over a year.

According to a KPRL Radio report, Axiom received $580,000 from clients in the first three months of Newsom’s term as governor. By the end of their second quarter, that amount had ballooned to $2.3 million. From Newsom’s January inauguration to September, Axiom reported a total of $10.9 million for lobbying work.

Some of that lobbying work included several clients who just happened to be invested in the outcome of the PG&E bankruptcy, the same bankruptcy which Newsom decided he needed to broker.

Kinney ran a lobbying shop, Axiom Advisors, which landed a major client in PG&E’s bankruptcy: a committee of companies to whom PG&E owed money.

They included obscure outfits like The Davey Tree Expert Company, but also major interests like Deutsche Bank, the IBEW 1245 union, and NextEra Energy Inc.

Axiom Advisors said it “met periodically with the Governor’s office” in a $400,000 fee statement filed in bankruptcy court. Kinney was listed as performing 31.5 hours of billable work.

The plan delivered for Kinney’s clients. They got cash “paid in full” plus interest.

The victims of the Camp Fire and the city of Paradise?

Well… WATCH:

The bankruptcy deal was filed on March 25, 2020. The French Laundry birthday celebration happened in November.

The Los Angeles Times explored the relationship between Kinney and Newsom and their blurred lines.

Newsom’s close personal relationship with Kinney raises serious concerns that corporations that pay big money to Axiom can obtain preferential treatment from the governor,” said Derek Seidman of the Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based nonprofit focused on government and corporate accountability.

The victims of the Camp Fire and the people of Paradise could use some preferential treatment right about now. Instead, they are still waiting on a payout, and may be evicted from the very land where they used to have homes.

Even though PG&E exited bankruptcy more than a year ago, the restitution money hasn’t come.

That’s because the bankruptcy plan approved by Gov. Newsom didn’t pay PG&E’s victims cash in full.

PG&E’s bankruptcy rolled their restitution into a trust fund to settle civil damages for more than a dozen other PG&E wildfires, some of whom have been waiting for payment since 2015.

The settlement for some of the victims’ portion was supposed to come from holding and selling shares of PG&E stock. The victims were allowed to vote on this, but were not given much of a choice: it was either choose this form of settlement, or get nothing.

In Biden’s America with the felonious PG&E? Good luck with that. The judge in charge of restitution for the victims has cited “federal tax concerns” as a reason for delays in selling those shares of PG&E stock.

One of the Paradise victims was blunt:

“There should be some adult in the room in the government somewhere, some type of leader that would say ‘No. You shouldn’t be making it the victim’s responsibility to pay the victims.”

According to the L.A. Times, an Axiom Advisors spokesperson denied that Kinney had any lobbying role with the PG&E settlement. The Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors of PG&E represented the financial institutions, the contractors, and the electrical workers. This committee paid Axiom $20,000 a month for nearly a year to lobby on behalf of the bankruptcy case.

And in the middle of a pandemic with COVID lockdown restrictions, a sitting governor who brokered a bankruptcy deal, and a lobbyist whose firm helped to seal the deal, partook of a $400 a plate meal indoors, without masks.