ONE STOKE OVER THE LINE: If anyone can make disgraced president Richard Nixon look good, it’s Mike Stoker, the Republican Party’s perennial candidate for just about anything. Late last week, Stoker — now running for the state senate against Democrat Hannah Beth Jackson — had convened the media for a press event near the imposing arches of the county’s fabled courthouse. It was an excruciatingly beautiful morning. Then Stoker opened his mouth and ruined everything.
“I’m not a hypocrite,” he boldly declared.
Compared to Nixon’s still stunning, “I am not a crook,” it was less tragic but more pathetic. Nixon, at least, had achieved a height from which to fall. Stoker’s point was that his Democratic opponent, Jackson, was, in fact, a hypocrite. Where Stoker had always been an open hack and a shill for the oil industry, Jackson, he complained, sought to portray herself as some anti-oil Joan of Arc, even though she had been paid to lobby on behalf of a controversial oil project four years ago. Worse yet, Stoker objected, Jackson had defamed him by falsely claiming he lobbied to lower the fines and penalties imposed on Greka Oil, a company so filthy that it would occupy all 12 spots in Santa Barbara’s environmental Dirty Dozen list.
Let’s start with the facts, always a slippery proposition when Stoker’s involved. Jackson was paid by the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) to lobby environmental groups in Sacramento in favor of a complicated and controversial agreement hatched between the EDC and the PXP Oil Company to allow offshore slant drilling into state waters from platforms that already existed in federal waters. It’s true, as Stoker claimed, this deal would have marked the first new oil drilling approved in state waters since the 1969 oil spill. It’s also true that every single major environmental organization on the South Coast enthusiastically supported this deal. And with the sole exception of then-assemblymember Pedro Nava, it had the effusive blessing of every pseudo-enviro-friendly elected official south of the Gaviota Tunnel. It may not have been a perfect deal, but from an anti-oil perspective, it was a great deal. By agreeing to give PXP a little — and what it looked like the company would have probably gotten anyway — EDC secured commitments from PXP that no oil company had ever been willing to give before. PXP agreed to an actual drop-dead date at which time it would cease and desist drilling. It would shut down one platform in 2022 and three others in 2014. Not only that, but it would pull the plug on two onshore oil- and gas-processing plants. In addition, it would donate 3,900 acres of land to the Trust for Public Land and would pay the cash-strapped state a $100-million up-front advance on oil royalties. It’s true that the EDC paid Jackson with money it received from PXP as part of its settlement. But if Stoker, an attorney by profession, tried to take a case to court with evidence as flimsy as his case against Jackson, he’d be found in contempt for insulting the judge’s intelligence.
Beyond Jackson’s purported double standard, I asked Stoker — an avowed fan of slant drilling — what his position on the PXP had been. Stoker repeatedly and emphatically denied he had ever formed any opinion on the matter, explaining — ad nauseum — it would have been irresponsible to do so without first reading the environmental impact report. I found this claim dubious in the extreme. At the time, Stoker worked as a paid staffer for state senator Tony Strickland; he had to have had an opinion on the biggest oil controversy to hit the county in years. The facts here are not on Stoker’s side. On May 18, 2010, the Ventura Star published an article reporting that Stoker said he supported the PXP development and detailed how Stoker hoped PXP’s $100-million royalty advance would be used to offset UC tuition increases.
Then there’s Stoker’s denial he ever worked as an attorney or a lobbyist to reduce fines for Greka Oil, a company whose extravagantly flagrant violation history achieved mythical proportion. Stoker was hired by Greka, he repeatedly explained, to help that troubled company get its environmental house in order and to become a model corporate citizen. Again, here are the facts: Stoker was hired by Greka — in some capacity — in 2007, when the company was fighting to get a reduction in the $2.9 million in fines imposed by Santa Barbara County. Stoker, in whatever capacity, was involved in those proceedings. I know this because Independent reporter Ethan Stewart attended them and saw Stoker in action with his own eyes. And Marie La Sala, the attorney representing the county in its dealings with Greka, told me in a recent interview that Stoker represented the company first as attorney and then later as a company executive who served as Greka’s lead witness in proceedings held to adjudicate the fines. Stoker insists, however, that La Sala and Stewart are dead wrong, “Period. End of paragraph.” When I told this to La Sala, she buried me with court transcripts in which Stoker — in whatever capacity — argued Greka made a “good faith” effort cleaning up its mess. At one point, he sought to rebut county complaints Greka hadn’t acted in a timely enough fashion by asserting that Greka had acted in “good faith” and responded in accordance to an agreement worked out with the county. La Sala, according to the transcript, vehemently objected no such “agreement” ever existed. To the unspun eye, it clearly appeared Stoker was arguing for leniency. No doubt, he was merely stating the facts. Ultimately, Greka took the county to court and got the fines reduced to $2.1 million. That’s still huge. And whatever you want to call Stoker — “goon” or “stooge” will do nicely — he was definitely involved.
As I left the press conference, the sun still shone. It was still a beautiful day. And Stoker managed to score one point; he is not a hypocrite. His problem? He’s worse.