Aftershocks of California’s Philanthropic QuakeGate

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Remember Chuck Quackenbush? Barely avoiding a perp walk, Quackenbush had to resign his post as California insurance commissioner in order to avoid impeachment as a philanthropic miscreant. There’s something of Shakespearean tragedy in his story, plummeting from hotshot California state government official to foundation abuser to Hawaiian scofflaw—and now a Florida deputy sheriff under investigation for shooting an unarmed man.

In the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, Quackenbush’s office went after recalcitrant insurance companies such as Allstate and State Farm, winning large settlements on behalf of Californian homeowners who the companies had shafted (a test run for insurance company behavior in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, obviously). Quackenbush put the funds into three foundations he and his lieutenants established and controlled.

Unfortunately, rather than using the moneys to help Californian homeowners and renters, the Quackenbush team handed out grants to politically connected nonprofits, some of which just happened to be connected to Quackenbush himself. After an investigation by a bipartisan committee of the state legislature, Attorney General Bill Lockyer immediately shut down one of the foundations as a “sham” and got convictions of some Quackenbush aides for mail fraud, laundering, and other philanthropic misadventures.

While his associates became guests of the state’s prison system, Quackenbush dodged that fate . The young, physically fit Insurance Commissioner decamped for Hawai’i where he set up shop supposedly working for “Military Intelligence” on post-9/11 planning and providing “strategic advice” for Hawai’i’s Republican state legislators — we kid you not — as he wrote it on his personal website. He also took up the sport of outrigger canoe paddling, part of his plan of “decompressing and preparing for the future” after his California ignominy.

At some point, he left Hawai’i and reemerged in 2005 as a sheriff’s deputy in Lee County, Florida. We simply note the news report that last month, the former insurance commissioner, shot and critically wounded a suspect who had allegedly been resisting arrest. According to news reports, Quackenbush shot the guy in the abdomen because they guy had grabbed Quackenbush’s taser and pointed it at him.

Irony was as compelling as tragedy in Shakespeare, and so it is for the story of Chuck Quackenbush. Almost a decade after Quackenbush dedicated $400,000 of the California Research and Assistance Fund toward the expenses of his political campaign advisors and $500,000 to the Sacramento office of the Urban League, which had just placed him on its board of directors, the remaining dollars are just now being released for some of their original purposes. The Seismic Safety Commission will be distributing grants and contracts through a competitive process for “educational issues, scientific issues, [and] structural performance issues” related to—earthquakes.

Quackenbush’s behavior was so utterly reprehensible in its misuse of the public’s money, that it is easy to fall prey to unmitigated schadenfreude. But look at Quackenbush’s personal webpage, think about this elected California insurance commissioner and aspiring gubernatorial candidate, ruining his government career by playing fast and loose with foundation funds, then concocting a tale of his Hawaiian political and personal rebirth, and finally ending up struggling over a stun gun as a cop in Southwest Florida. It’s all so sad — for philanthropy and for Chuck Quackenbush.