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Corporate Farmer Calls Upon Sen. Feinstein to Influence Environmental Dispute
Posted on Dec 6, 2009
By Lance Williams, California Watch
Wealthy corporate farmer Stewart Resnick has written check after check to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s political campaigns. He’s hosted a party in her honor at his Beverly Hills mansion, and he’s entertained her at his second home in Aspen.
And in September, when Resnick asked Feinstein to weigh in on the side of agribusiness in a drought-fueled environmental dispute over the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, this wealthy grower and political donor got quick results, documents show.
On Sept. 4, Resnick wrote to Feinstein, complaining that the latest federal plan to rescue the delta’s endangered salmon and shad fisheries was “exacerbating the state’s severe drought” because it cut back on water available to irrigate crops. “Sloppy science” by federal wildlife agencies had led to “regulatory-induced water shortages,” he claimed.
“I really appreciate your involvement in this issue,” he wrote to Feinstein.
One week later, Feinstein forwarded Resnick’s letter to two U.S. Cabinet secretaries. In her own letter, she urged the administration to spend $750,000 for a sweeping re-examination of the science behind the entire delta environmental protection plan.
To environmentalists concerned with protecting the delta, it was a dispiriting display of the political clout wielded by Resnick, who is among California’s biggest growers and among its biggest political donors.
Resnick’s Paramount Farms owns 118,000 acres of heavily irrigated California orchards. And since he began buying farmland 25 years ago, Resnick, his wife and executives of his companies have donated $3.97 million to candidates and political committees, mostly in the Golden State, a California Watch review of public records shows.
“It is very disappointing that one person can make this kind of request, and all of a sudden he has a senator on the phone, calling up [U.S. Interior Secretary Ken] Salazar,” says Jim Metropulos, senior advocate for the Sierra Club.
Feinstein’s letter was “based on what she believes to be the best policy for California and the nation,” Feinstein spokesman Gil Duran said in a statement. “No other factors play a role in her decisions.”
With the California Central Valley’s economy battered by recession and drought, Feinstein believed it was important to reconsider the restrictions on pumping delta water for irrigation, he said. Many farmers have urged such a review, he added.
In an interview, Resnick said he didn’t leverage his relationship with Feinstein to persuade her to intervene.
“Honestly, I’m not saying we could not have done that, but I don’t think that’s the way it happened,” he said. Feinstein long has had an interest in water issues, and “she just wanted to get to the bottom of this,” Resnick said.
A Troubled Estuary
The delta provides drinking water for 20 million people and irrigation for the state’s vast agriculture industry. But after decades of water diversions, delta fish populations are in catastrophic decline, scientists say.
Prodded by lawsuits from environmentalists, federal wildlife agencies commissioned scientific studies of the delta’s ecological crisis. Based on the studies, the agencies launched a restoration program that curtailed pumping for irrigation and increased water flows for migrating fish.
Meanwhile, three years of drought have forced big cuts in water allotments for farmers, and swaths of valley farmland lie fallow. The recession pushed the unemployment rate in some towns in the valley to 40 percent.
As a result, the restrictions on pumping delta water became the target of a series of noisy protests that played out over the summer. Farmers and politicians blamed “radical environmentalists”—and the Obama administration—for ignoring the drought’s impact on the valley’s economy. “The government decided that the farmers come second and the delta smelt come first,” as Sean Hannity of Fox News put it on a visit to Fresno.
“Paramount Farms is a huge player,” says Gerald Meral, former director of the Planning and Conservation League environmental lobby.
Wealth and Philanthropy
In Los Angeles, Resnick, 72, is known as one of the city’s wealthiest men and among its most generous philanthropists. He’s given $55 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, millions more for a psychiatric hospital at UCLA and an energy institute at Cal Tech.
His wife and business partner, Lynda Resnick, is an entrepreneur, socialite and writer. Her 2008 marketing book, “Rubies in the Orchard,” attracted blurbs from Martha Stewart and Rupert Murdoch, and her “Ruby Tuesday” blog is sometimes featured on huffingtonpost.com. The couple live in a Beverly Hills mansion that writer Amy Wilentz called “Little Versailles.” It’s the scene of parties for celebrities, charities and politicians—governors, senators and presidential candidates.
Resnick said he worked his way through UCLA “washing windows,” and made his first million running a burglar alarm service. Since then, the couple’s Roll International holding company has profitably operated a long list of businesses: Teleflora florist wire service; POM Wonderful pomegranate juice; Franklin Mint, a mail-order collectibles firm; and FIJI bottled water, imported from the South Seas.
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