SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-The appointment of a former State Farm lawyer to a California legislative panel has drawn criticism from one of the state's leading consumer groups, while one industry leader has urged critics to reserve judgment.
Ken Cooley was tapped by state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, last week to serve as one of two consultants to the powerful Senate Banking, Finance and Insurance Committee that Calderon chairs.
Cooley is a former legislative counsel for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Corp. His appointment to advise the committee that has purview over the insurance industry has sparked concerns over potential conflicts of interest.
Speaking to Legal Newsline, Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, decried Cooley's appointment. He said that Calderon's pick is a "real mistake and disregard for the independence" needed for legislative consulting.
"The insurance lobby has plenty of people to explain their points of view to lawmakers. They should not have an inside track as well," Heller said Tuesday.
He said Cooley's appointment could be an attempt on the part of the senator "to make sure the industry's perspective has dominance in the committee."
Jeffrey Fuller, executive vice president and general counsel for the Association of California Insurance Companies, said he expects Cooley to give legislators what they expect: a fair look at pending legislation.
"He's not going to be an advocate for State Farm," Fuller said in an interview from his Sacramento office. "I assume Consumer Watchdog doesn't like him because he worked for State Farm, but I have always known Ken to be a straight shooter and very knowledgeable."
He said the insurance industry will wield no special power through Cooley's appointment, noting that before working for State Farm, Cooley was chief counsel for the state Assembly Insurance Committee during the 1980s.
"I've known Ken for years and years, and have always known him to be a fair-minded guy," Fuller told Legal Newsline. "He understands insurance, he is a smart guy, he does good analyses and he looks at the bills."
Still, Heller said Cooley's work on so-called independent committee bill analyses could help the industry he had served for many years.
"They can shape the discussion, so if these analyses have an industry bent they can give lawmakers cover for doing things that may be really anti-consumer," Heller said.
Fuller said critics, including Santa Monica, Calif.-based Consumer Watchdog, "should wait and see what kinds of analyses he writes" before questioning his objectivity.
From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at firstname.lastname@example.org.