Sonoma State president’s husband criticized for role as $25,000-a-month lobbyist for fire victims

Patrick McCallum, who is embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal involving allegations of retaliation against his wife, is being paid $25,000 a month to lobby for the California Fire Victim Trust.|

The California Fire Victim Trust, a key account for nearly 66,000 wildfire victims, hired Patrick McCallum to lobby the state for a $1.5 billion loan just weeks before he and his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki, became ensnared in a campus scandal.

McCallum, a veteran Sacramento lobbyist on higher-education policy who retired in early 2020, said he took the job on a $25,000 a month salary and that it is the only issue he is working on.

He told The Press Democrat he hopes to build on lobbying work he did in 2018 and 2019, when he helped push through legislation that created the Trust.

If McCallum and the trust’s administrator, retired California Court of Appeal Judge John Trotter, are successful in convincing Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature to make the loan, it could lead to faster and larger payouts for fire victims who are still awaiting compensation for the ruin of utility-sparked fires nearly half a decade ago.

But two prominent North Bay lawmakers said McCallum should not be lobbying for the trust amid the unfolding controversy at SSU.

Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who Monday called for “close scrutiny” of Sakaki’s leadership at SSU, on Tuesday said his staff had been contacted by McCallum about the proposed loan but questioned whether the lobbyist should be working on the issue.

“The serious allegations against him undermine his credibility,” Dodd said in a statement, “and I think it’s a disservice to wildfire victims.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, went further, saying McCallum should “110%” not be advocating for fire victims.

McCallum had reached out to his staff, the senator said in a brief phone interview Tuesday, but he had not met with the lobbyist. “We all want to do more for fire victims,” he said. “My conversation in regards to the Fire Victim Trust has been with Judge Trotter.”

McCallum disputed the characterizations, saying lawmakers should be focused on making the best deal for their constituents.

“I want to hear that Sen. Dodd is ready to step up for his constituents and wildfire victims,” McCallum said Tuesday.

The Fire Victim Trust was created to compensate victims from the 2017 North Bay fires, the 2018 Camp fire and other fires whose claims helped push Pacific Gas and Electric Co. into bankruptcy in January 2019.

PG&E established the $13.5 billion fund as part of a deal to emerge from bankruptcy court. Only half the fund was cash. The other half was company stock, and low share prices mean that the fund is short at least $1.5 billion.

A loan could help bail the trust out from what some fire victims consider a bad deal they were pushed into by the Legislature, the utility and other forces including Up from the Ashes, a victim’s advocacy group funded by high-powered trial attorneys that employed McCallum after the 2017 and 2018 fires.

With a new lobbying contract from the trust, McCallum is now trying to get the state to advance a loan as a solution. The loan could make victims whole quicker, while the fund could pay the state back once the utility’s stock price climbs back up, he told The Press Democrat on Tuesday.

Claims “would go out quicker, faster, fully compensated,” he said. “The state would be taking care of these poor people.”

McCallum said he believed his experience as a lobbyist as well as his personal experience as a victim of the 2017 Tubbs fire — he and Sakaki barely escaped with their lives, with McCallum fleeing their Fountaingrove home in just his boxers — outweigh any negativity from recent turmoil at SSU.

People “know I believe in (the Trust), and I have knowledge in it and I understand the legislative process,” McCallum said. “I know the key players in it. My value and my experience being a fire victim ... is far more valuable than any controversy that’s going on.”

Trotter did not immediately respond Tuesday to specific questions about McCallum’s employment.

“We are just beginning our talks with the State and have no information to share,” Trotter said in an earlier email. According to McCallum, Trotter called and asked him to temporarily come out of retirement and take on the lobbying job four to five weeks ago.

McCallum said his $25,000 a month salary was justified because he had no other clients and was providing full services from public relations to research without a complete staff. A deal with a price tag as high as $1.5 billion would normally involve a higher lobbying output, he argued.

Late Tuesday, officials from the trust provided the following statement: “The Trust has become aware of the stories that broke over the past couple days about Mr. McCallum and is looking into the matter further and seriously. We want to reiterate that we remain focused on exploring avenues to get victims paid for their injuries and that means continued efforts with the state legislature and the governor.”

Several SSU employees have accused McCallum of sexual harassment through inappropriate touching and remarks, according to university officials. A subsequent Title IX investigation by California State University officials did not substantiate the harassment claims. Three employees contacted by the investigator declined to participate in an investigation. In January, however, the California State University system paid a $600,000 settlement to former SSU provost Lisa Vollendorf, who accused Sakaki of retaliating against her for reporting the allegations of harassment against McCallum.

McCallum has denied any allegations of harassment while apologizing for any behavior he said could have made people uncomfortable. In a statement issued Sunday, McCallum cited unresolved PTSD from his fire escape in 2017 for some of the issues at SSU. He said a hearing impairment forces him to stand close during conversations, which may have made some uncomfortable. He also said he failed early on to understand how a university president’s spouse should behave.

On Monday morning, Sakaki announced she was separating from McCallum. The announcement came after he sent a late-night email accusing Vollendorf of exposing sexual harassment allegations to cover for a poor job performance.

Amid all this, McCallum has continued lobbying for the trust. He met with staff from Newsom’s office Tuesday morning to discuss the loan and other strategies to shore up the fund, he said.

Will Abrams, a 2017 Tubbs fire victim and advocate for increased measures to hold PG&E accountable for wildfires and boost public safety, said that alongside any state loan, the parties who supported the creation of the Fire Victim Trust deserve scrutiny for pushing victims to accept the half-stock, half-cash deal.

Major debt holders, insurance companies and other parties walked away from the bankruptcy with cash while victims were left to rely on the share price of the same company whose equipment started fires that destroyed their lives, Abrams said.

“As a victim waiting on these funds to rebuild my home of course I want a quick remedy to the unjust financial predicament of the Fire Victim Trust,” he said, “however as someone who cares about the prospect of more fires and more criminality from PG&E I also feel it is important to look at how the financial interests of PG&E and utility investors undermined justice for victims and public safety.”

Previous reporting by KQED radio found large fees to lawyers, administrators and consultants were paid directly out of the body of the Trust — money that could go to victims.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor