Rob Reiner Accused of Misusing California State Funds
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Film director Rob Reiner has come a long way from his days of playing Meathead on the TV sitcom All in the Family. But lately, some of his political critics here in California have been calling him worse names. Reiner heads a state commission called First 5 California. The agency was born eight years ago, when Reiner put a measure on the California ballot that boosted cigarette taxes to benefit young children.
Now, critics claim that Reiner used millions of First 5 tax dollars to buy TV commercials for another political initiative he's got on the ballot this June. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.
INA JAFFE reporting:
The TV ads ran for a couple of months this winter, and they were eye catching.
(Soundbite of TV Ad)
Unidentified Announcer: (In television ad) Over one-third of California's kids drop out of high school before the graduate, which means they're more likely to get in trouble with the law.
JAFFE: The shots of a young man dashing through alleys are sinister. But the commercial says that if kids get the right start by going to pre-school, they're less likely to go wrong later in life. At the end of the ad, the breathless young man digs into his backpack and whips out a cap and gown, just in time to get his diploma.
(Soundbite of TV Ad)
Unidentified Man: (In television ad) Pre-school. When kids go, we all benefit.
JAFFE: This spot was part of a $23 million campaign promoting pre-school that was paid for by First 5 California, the state commission Reiner heads. What outraged his critics was that the commercials aired at the same time Reiner was gathering signatures for another initiative to have state funded pre-school for all four-year olds.
State Senator DAVE COX (Republican, California) You can't use taxpayer dollars to advance a political cause.
JAFFE: Republican State Senator Dave Cox.
State Senator COX: The gracious thing would be for Mr. Reiner to just step aside, recognizing that he's in this hurricane of conflict.
JAFFE: Reiner has taken a leave of absence from his post while he campaigns for his pre-school initiative. But in a Q&A with the Sacramento Press Club last week, he said he has no intention of resigning.
Mr. ROB REINER (Director, First 5 California): The only reason to resign is if you did something wrong. I didn't do anything wrong. So, there's no reason to resign.
JAFFE: Anyway, Reiner said, the original initiative that created First 5 California contained a budget specifically for parental education campaigns.
Mr. REINER: This is to let people know about the programs, to be able to access them, and we set aside six percent.
JAFFE: But critics say these ads weren't just about accessing programs. A strategy memo from Reiner's political advertising agency suggests that universal pre-school has been part of Reiner's agenda for years. Dated October 30, 2002, the memo outlines a long-term strategy to, quote, “create demand for state funded universal pre-school.” Reiner told the press club he hadn't seen the memo…
Mr. REINER: And here's another weird little thing. To this day, I've never even seen those ads.
State Senator COX: Well, my guess is that Mr. Reiner is being disingenuous with respect to his responses.
JAFFE: Again, Republican State Senator Dave Cox.
State Senator COX: He is, in fact, either being disingenuous, or clearly is not capable of being the head of a commission that's raining in the kind of money that they're raining in.
Mr. DARY SCHRAGO(ph) (Democratic Political Consultant): He's going to have to answer the question of what he knew and when he knew it.
JAFFE: Dary Schrago is a veteran Democratic Political Consultant. Personally, he doubts that Reiner really did anything wrong. But Schrago says Reiner can't just ignore this controversy and hope it'll go away.
Mr. SCHRAGO: I would say, look, be forthright. Whatever there is to say, say it--say it early, say it often--but you're going to have to be willing to get up in the morning and take a couple of aspirin and try to stave off the headache, because it's not going to be fun.
JAFFE: Reiner has long been a force in liberal political circles here. He is sometimes mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate. But with his pre-school initiative so strongly identified with him personally, he might as well be on the ballot himself this June, says the Democratic head of the Senate, Don Perata.
State Senator DON PERATA (Democrat, California): This is now going to be a referendum on Rob Reiner, every movie that he made, every dollar that he's raised. He's beginning to find out, if he hadn't already, that the standard of tests that the public applies for those of us in public life is higher and much more unforgiving.
JAFFE: Rob Reiner declined to be interviewed for this story. The executive director of First 5 California and a representative of their ad agency also refused interviews until they retain independent legal counsel. Meanwhile, the legislature has ordered an audit of First 5 California's books. Rob Reiner has said he welcomes it. But it won't be completed until after voters weigh in on his ballot measure to create state funded pre-school for all California kids.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.