April 21, 2010; Los Angeles Times | Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) just released its list of the eleven worst governors in the nation, a motley bipartisan coterie if there ever was one. We take notice of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appearance on the list, because unlike the other governors, Schwarzenegger appears in part because of misuse or abuse of nonprofits.

According to the CREW report [PDF], California’s departing governor used “a network of tax-exempt groups [to pay] for many of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s personal and staff expenses, including a $6,000 per month Sacramento hotel suite he maintains.” The California Commission on Jobs and Economic Growth is a charity that promotes the Governor’s public relations events and was not reluctant to raise $1 million from corporate interests, including some with business with the state.

Two utility companies gave $200,000 to the nonprofit after the governor said he wouldn’t accept donations from the utilities (he was drafting an energy policy at the time), and a hospital group gave it $100,000 (the Governor issued an executive order on nurse-patient ratios that the hospitals liked and the nurses didn’t). The travel and personal expanses of the governor and some lawmakers have been paid for by the nonprofit California State Protocol Foundation (housed at the California Chamber of Commerce), backed by corporate donations.

It seems to us to have a nonprofit servicing the Governor’s travel and PR needs lodged at the Chamber with overlapping Chamber and foundation staff is bad enough, but the Chamber spent $2 million lobbying the Governor and legislators on ballot initiatives while it transported the Governor and staff with expenditures including $523,000 in private jet service. The governor’s own pet charity, “After-School All Stars,” has also had its share of conflicts of interest. AT&T gave the All Stars $500,000, and 6 months later, the Governor signed a law deregulating television service, apparently an AT&T issue.

Governor Schwarzenegger has been an interesting case in the governor’s mansion, disappointing Republicans who thought he was too liberal and Democrats who thought he was still a Republican. The CREW report should disappoint nonprofits in that the Governor unwittingly and perhaps wittingly stretched the line on what nonprofits ought to do with and for political office-holders.—Rick Cohen