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Patrick McCallum out as Fire Victim Trust lobbyist amid Sonoma State harassment scandal

Patrick McCallum has been ousted from his position as lobbyist for the state’s Fire Victim Trust amid a sexual harassment scandal involving him at Sonoma State University, where his wife Judy Sakaki is president.

The move came a day after McCallum briefed aides to Gov. Gavin Newsom as part of his work for the fire trust, and after two prominent North Bay lawmakers said McCallum should not be lobbying for wildfire victims following allegations of sexual harassment against him made by several female employees of Sonoma State.

John Trotter, the trust’s San Francisco-based administrator, said the scandal at SSU was a “distraction” from its work for fire victims.

“Providing economic benefits as quickly as possible to the Trust’s 70,000 wildfire victims has been our highest priority,” Trotter, a retired judge, said in a Wednesday afternoon news release. “We want our entire focus to be on what we’re doing to help fire victims rebuild their lives, not on unrelated issues that have become a distraction in recent days.”

On Tuesday, McCallum told The Press Democrat he was being paid $25,000 a month to lobby for the trust.

The same day, Senate Majority Leader Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said he should not be the paid voice in Sacramento for wildfire victims.

Dodd applauded the trust’s decision Wednesday.

“This was a prudent decision that will allow the Legislature and governor’s office to have someone credible we can work with to support wildfire victims,” Dodd said.

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

McCallum had been hired by the trust to lobby the state for a $1.5 billion loan to make up for a shortfall in the fund’s cash balance and ensure it could continue to pay sufficient claims to wildfire victims. The trust hired McCallum in March, according to Trotter’s statement.

But this month, McCallum was swept up in scandal after The Press Democrat first reported on a $600,000 settlement the California State University system paid in January to resolve a claim by a former SSU provost. The provost alleged Sakaki retaliated against her after she reported sexual harassment complaints against McCallum.

He has denied allegations of harassment while apologizing for any behavior he said could have made people uncomfortable.

Trust officials on Tuesday said they were just learning of the allegations against McCallum and would be reviewing his paid position.

“We had hoped that Patrick would be able to guide us through the State of California administration given his extensive lobbying experience,” Trotter said in the Wednesday news release. “Unfortunately, we were unaware of the regrettable circumstances that have come to light in recent days, which have necessitated our actions today.”

McCallum is a veteran Sacramento lobbyist on higher-education policy who retired in early 2020. The Fire Victim Trust loan was the only issue he was currently working on, he said.

McCallum and Sakaki narrowly escaped the 2017 Tubbs fire, which destroyed their home in Santa Rosa’s upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood. Following that experience, McCallum helped lead Up from the Ashes, an advocacy group funded by high-profile law firms representing wildfire victims.

Up from the Ashes supported legislation that drove the creation of the Fire Victim Trust. But the trust wound up underfunded as the result of a deal in which PG&E, the utility whose equipment sparked many of the destructive 2017 and 2018 fires, funded it with cash payments and company stock. PG&E struck that deal as it exited bankruptcy.

The trust seeks a $1.5 billion loan to make up for a shortfall in the fund driven by PG&E’s low stock value. The trust has distributed more than $3 billion to fire victims to date, according to Trotter’s statement.

The aim with the loan, McCallum said Tuesday, was to make the trust whole until PG&E’s stock price rose. Then, the trust could repay the state, avoiding shouldering wildfire victims with the shortfall driven by the low stock price in the meantime.

In a statement, McCallum said he was proud of the work he had done for the trust, including a briefing on potential solutions to Newsom’s staff on Tuesday.

“I hope that Sens. Dodd and McGuire will step up and make sure the (governor) and Legislature provide the loan to the trust to ensure that 66,000 wildfire victims are properly compensated so they can finish building their home, pay off their medical bills, rebuild their business and in some cases get out of the trailer they have been living in.”

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.

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