In 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office reported that individuals or organizations made $226 million in private donations to organizations at Newsom’s request. These “behested payments” were a record-setting haul eclipsing all prior donations on record by nearly $100 million. While most donations supported COVID-19 relief efforts, a closer look suggests Newsom’s fundraising was supercharged not just by the pandemic, but also by the broad emergency powers the Democratic governor has assumed because of it.
Behested payments are a unique feature of California politics. State law defines a behested payment as a donation to a government program or charity made “at the request, suggestion, or solicitation of, or made in cooperation, consultation, coordination or concert” with a public official. While payments of $5,000 or more are disclosed to the public, they remain an overlooked portion of politicians’ finances, even though contributions often come from businesses with interests in the state government.
Last year, Newsom raised a combined $45 million from insurance giants Blue Shield of California and Kaiser Permanente for Project Homekey, his housing initiative. Newsom had selected Blue Shield CEO Paul Markovich to co-chair California’s task force on COVID-19 testing. In January, the governor again tapped Blue Shield, with assistance from Kaiser Permanente, to manage vaccine distribution across the state. That decision has raised eyebrows as the governor’s office has remained silent about the particulars of the deal, including why his administration selected Blue Shield and how much the company would be paid.
But Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente aren’t alone. Newsom has committed to spending nearly $4 billion on no-bid contracts to fight the pandemic. A number of companies who lined up for these contracts ended up donating, at Newsom’s request, to his various relief efforts.
Since March, Verily Life Sciences has received up to $44 million in three different contracts to help operate COVID-19 testing sites. Verily falls under the same parent company as Google, and in April, Google donated $7 million in ad credits to the governor’s COVID-19 ad campaign. That same month, Verily registered to lobby the governor’s office. Similarly, AT&T received over $40 million in contracts from the Office of Emergency Services. They donated $310,000 to the governor’s office and spent millions more lobbying the state last year. Other donor-contractors include McKinsey & Company and advertising firm Runyon Saltzman.