Fact check: Is the French Laundry lobbyist swaying Newsom’s stance on a proposed water plant?

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Sophia Bollag
·5 min read
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Claim: An ad running in Sacramento media funded by an environmental group starts with a provocative question about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s now infamous attendance at a party held at a swanky restaurant.

“Just what was Gavin Newsom discussing at the French Laundry?” the ad asks.

The ad doesn’t answer the question directly, but suggests the Democratic governor might have discussed a proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant with his lobbyist friend Jason Kinney, who hosted the event.

Rating: It’s true that Kinney’s firm represents Poseidon. It’s also true that Newsom is a supporter of the project. But opponents have no evidence that the two discussed the issue.

Details about Gavin Newsom, Jason Kinney and Poseidon

Newsom doesn’t have direct influence over the project, which several environmental groups fiercely oppose, but he could use his power as governor to held ensure the plant gets key government approvals.

Environmental group Azul is running the ad in several Sacramento-based and Capitol-focused publications, including The Sacramento Bee and the Capitol Morning Report, to reach state policymakers, Azul’s climate action director Andrea León-Grossmann said.

Poseidon Water, the company trying to build the plant, is a major client of Kinney’s lobbying firm, Axiom Advisors.

The ad says Poseidon paid Kinney half a million dollars to lobby for the project. Poseidon paid Axiom $575,000 over the last two years, but it’s not clear how much of that money went to Kinney.

Kinney did not respond to a request for comment. In the past, he has declined to provide The Sacramento Bee with a list of his lobbying clients.

Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni said he knows Kinney, but said Poseidon’s lobbying arrangement is with Axiom, not Kinney personally.

The ad’s characterization of Newsom’s personal relationship with Kinney is accurate – the two are old friends, and Newsom attended Kinney’s birthday party at the French Laundry last year.

Newsom bars his paid political consultants from lobbying him, but the ban doesn’t currently apply to Kinney because he isn’t being paid by Newsom’s campaign or the California Democratic Party.

That said, Newsom’s support for the project predates Kinney’s work for Poseidon.

Newsom voted for the desalination plant in 2017 when he served on the California State Lands Commission as lieutenant governor. Kinney’s lobbying firm Axiom Advisors wasn’t founded until Newsom was elected governor in 2018.

In January 2019, Poseidon donated $25,000 to Newsom’s inaugural benefit concert, which raised money for firefighters and wildfire victims. Kinney joined Axiom shortly after the inauguration, following a stint volunteering full-time for Newsom’s transition.

Newsom’s office confirmed that the governor supports the project. Newsom wants to build the state’s drought resilience, including through desalination projects that are “cost effective and environmentally appropriate,” his spokeswoman Erin Mellon said in a statement.

The ad also points out that Newsom removed a member of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board who was critical of the proposal as the board considers approval of a major permit for the plant.

That’s true. Newsom replaced Martin Von Blasingame, whose term on the board had expired, with Tustin Mayor Letitia Clark before the commission voted on the project.

Von Blasingame was appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013. Von Blasingame told The Bee that he questioned the need for the project. He also said he never received an explanation from the governor’s office as to why he was removed from the board.

Mellon said Newsom replaced Von Blasingame as one of “many changes across his administration over the past two years to bring in new members to provide fresh perspectives and ensure we are representing the entire state.”

The ad also claims that Newsom’s office refused to turn over records related to meetings about Poseidon. The Newsom administration did deny a public records request from an environmental group called Orange County Coastkeeper that sought records related to Poseidon. It’s not clear from the denial letter if the governor’s office has records related to Poseidon, or if there were meetings with Kinney related to the project.

Separately, the Newsom administration has denied requests from The Sacramento Bee for communications between members of Newsom’s office and Jason Kinney, and communications related to the French Laundry dinner.

Claims about environmental damage, water rates

The ad says the Poseidon plant will kill ocean life. That’s true. Poseidon and environmental groups agree that the plant will kill plankton.

The plant will put screens on its water intake pipes to block larger sea life from being sucked in, Maloni said, but microscopic organisms will be killed as part of the plant’s operations.

Environmental groups argue Poseidon should take steps beyond just screens that would protect microscopic organisms, which are an important part of the food chain and ecosystem.

The ad says the plant will raise water rates. That’s accurate. The Orange County Water District estimates that buying water from the plant would raise residential water bills by $3-$6 per month. The Water District also estimates that “at some point in the future the cost of desalinated water will be cheaper than imported water, thus affording a cost savings for customers in the future,” according to a summary from the Santa Ana Regional Water Board.

The same summary found that the cost increases associated with the plant would not infringe on people’s right to safe drinking water, undercutting the ad’s claim that it would “erode the human right to water.”

The ad also argues the plant will contribute to climate change. The plant itself will not produce climate-warming greenhouse gases, but will use electricity that pollutes the atmosphere. Poseidon has agreed to make the plant “carbon neutral,” meaning it has agreed to purchase carbon offsets.

Azul argues it will still generate harmful pollution and that the county should rely on water sources that use less energy, León-Grossmann said.

The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler contibuted to this report.