Lara Korte and Sophia Bollag
The Sacramento Bee
When photos circulated earlier this month of Gov. Gavin Newsom dining at the swanky French Laundry restaurant for a birthday party, Californians got a glimpse of the well-known but rarely observed coziness between lobbyists and politicians.
The dinner gave fuel to critics of the governor’s coronavirus restrictions, who pointed to the hypocrisy of Newsom mingling in a 12-person group as he told the rest of the state to avoid seeing family and friends for Thanksgiving.
It also thrust into the spotlight Newsom’s longtime relationship with Jason Kinney, the California lobbyist who hosted the party to celebrate his 50th birthday.
At a press conference earlier this month, Newsom described Kinney as “a friend that I’ve known for almost 20 years.”
Their relationship dates back to the now-governor’s days in San Francisco City Hall, where Newsom served as a county supervisor starting in the late 90s and then as mayor from 2004 to 2011.
Kinney’s profile has risen along with Newsom’s. He has worked for years as a political consultant for Newsom and other California Democrats, and partnered closely with him to legalize marijuana through a successful 2016 ballot measure campaign.
When Newsom was elected governor, Kinney worked on his transition team and then joined the newly-formed lobbying firm Axiom Advisors.
The firm has since reported more than $10.8 million in payments received during its first two years in operation and boasts a list of well-heeled clients, including marijuana firms, Facebook and Netflix.
Kinney and his wife, Mary Gonsalves Kinney, are close with the governor and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who also attended the party. Gonsalves Kinney has been a personal stylist to Siebel Newsom and has a considerable following on Instagram, where she identifies herself in her bio as a “stylist, writer, feminist/activist for social justice.”
Kinney’s relationship with Newsom helped net him a spot on Capitol Weekly’s list of the top 100 most influential people in Sacramento, a high-profile ranking of top political power brokers.
He has also made the news in less favorable ways.
In 2008, as Barack Obama was on the cusp of winning the White House for the first time, Kinney, who was working at public affairs firm California Strategies, was put in charge of a publicity campaign on the behalf of an exiled sheikh from the United Arab Emirates seeking to gain power over his brother.
As The Sacramento Bee reported in 2013, Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi hired California Strategies to introduce him to U.S. government officials and mount a public affairs strategy that cast him as an American ally in his effort to gain power in Ras al-Khaimah, one of the seven monarchies that make up the United Arab Emirates.
After winning the election, Obama pledged not to take money for his inauguration celebration from representatives of foreign interests. As a representative of the sheikh, California Strategies registered with the federal government as a foreign agent, but Kinney did not, as was required.
According to reporting by the Guardian in 2010, California Strategies was brought on to help the sheikh with what the paper called a “bloodless coup” by suggesting that the then-leaders of Ras al-Khaimah, the sheikh’s brother and father, were in league with Iran and breaking international sanctions to support its nuclear ambitions.
Within months of taking on the sheikh as a client, Kinney and his wife gave $52,000 for Obama’s inauguration. The two traveled to Washington for the event, according to Bee reporting. The sheikh was there, too.
Over two years, the sheikh spent more than $3 million on the campaign, including $25,000 a month to Kinney. Federal filings revealed the firm dispensed gifts to more than a dozen officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
The sheikh’s effort to install himself as leader of Ras-Al Khaimah was, apparently, unsuccessful. After his father’s death in 2010, his brother, Sheikh Saul, gained control and remains in power today. Sheikh Khalid’s contract with California Strategies ended shortly after.
Several years later, in 2013, California’s political watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, fined Kinney and two of his-then partners at California Strategies for hiding some of their business from public view by not registering with the state as lobbyists. Kinney, the firm and the other partners were fined a total of $40,500 for the violation.
The same year, the Bee reported the IRS had filed liens of more than $840,000 against Kinney for federal income taxes he owed from 2007 to 2010.
Documents filed with Sacramento County, where Kinney lives, show he paid off more than $840,000 in tax liens in 2009.
A spokesperson for Kinney did not respond to questions about his relationship with Newsom or details about his clients, but referred The Bee to an earlier statement about the party: “This was a small, intimate 12-person dinner with family and a few close friends to celebrate a 50th birthday.”
Newsom has apologized for attending the party, which he says was bigger than he expected.
“As soon as I sat down at the larger table, I realized it was a little larger group than I had anticipated,” he said. “Instead of sitting down, I should have stood up and walked back, got in my car and drove back to my house.”
From an ethics perspective, it’s important that Newsom says he paid for his own meal, said Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies who helped craft California’s political ethics laws.
He noted Newsom doesn’t seem concerned with Kinney’s ethical lapses, which Stern pointed out never resulted in punishment more serious than fines.
“He’s had a close relationship with Newsom all along,” Stern said. “Doesn’t seem to bother Newsom at all.”
One person who has known Newsom both personally and politically for many years said others have tried to discourage the relationship.
“It’s a mystery not just to me, but to many other longtime friends of Newsom’s, why he goes out of his way to allow Kinney to hang around him and just brazenly profit from his association with him,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic.
“All you have to do is Google Kinney to understand the cloud of scandal and ethical lapses that hangs over his head. Gavin’s been warned about Kinney for years, that he’s bad news waiting to happen. And now this. None of us get it.”
Beyond the coronavirus concerns, the dinner also highlighted Newsom’s close relationship with key Capitol interests. Two representatives of the influential California Medical Association, CEO Dustin Corcoran and lobbyist Janus Norman, also attended the celebration, where images showed guests in close contact without wearing masks.
Dinners with lobbyists are common for politicians from both parties, but the optics are still bad, said longtime political operative and government ethics expert Dan Schnur, a former chairman of the state’s political ethics watchdog commission.
“Voters hear the word lobbyist and automatically react with suspicion. It reminds them that other people are getting access to powerful politicians that they are not getting themselves,” he said. “You could make a fairly damaging campaign commercial to run against any politician being part of a dinner like this one.”
Jim Brulte, former California Senate Republican leader who worked with Kinney while they were both at lobbying firm California Strategies, said Kinney is a skilled political strategist.
“I’ve always found him to be upfront. He’s personable, he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it,” Brulte said. “I have a great deal of respect for him. He’s a Democrat through and through. Even though we’re on opposite sides of nearly every political battle, I admire political warriors. He’s an A-player.”
Michael Bustamante, a partner at California Strategies, praised Kinney’s work and his skill as a lobbyist, and said his relationship with Newsom is the product of years of working together.
“This is a relationship that predates Jason being a lobbyist and Gavin being a governor. That’s what you see there. Just because you’re an elected or because you work for a firm doesn’t negate a personal relationship that has occurred over almost two decades,” he said.
“If Gavin Newsom weren’t governor, he and Jason Kinney would still be friends.”
Moving forward, Newsom will need to be careful to avoid favoring any of Kinney’s lobbying clients because people will look closely for any appearance of influence, Stern said.
“My big question will be ‘will this impact Jason Kinney’s business?’” he said. “Everybody’s going to be looking very carefully at what Newsom does in relation to Kinney’s clients. There’s a spotlight on both of them, and that’s not going to be helpful to Kinney.”