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Is Meg Whitman California's Version of Leona Helmsley?

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Meg Whitman, the former eBay empress, is the Republican candidate running for governor of California. We can only assume that she wants that office so she can provide a public service for the citizens of California. Surely, then, it is reasonable to look back at her history of fulfilling public obligations as a California citizen. In doing so we can measure whether her current commitment to public service matches her record of participation in some public spheres of citizenship in the Golden State.

Jury service

This week new insight into her attitudes toward public service emerged. Whitman was summoned as a potential juror for a child molestation prosecution in the Superior Court of San Mateo county, the county where she maintains a home in the toney Bay Area suburb of Atherton. The case was People v. Tarquin Craig Thomas. Thomas, a 44-year-old British citizen, is accused of molesting three young boys.

When called into the jury box for voir dire examination as a prospective juror Whitman virtually invited her own challenge:

...Republican Meg Whitman was dismissed as a potential juror in a San Mateo County child-molestation case. Earlier in the day, while being questioned, Whitman told attorneys she would serve if selected but acknowledged this is 'not a good time for me to give 100 percent.'

Not surprisingly, Whitman's declaration of her future attention deficit produced a quick "thank you and you are excused," the result she sought. Any prosecutor, defense attorney or judge would quickly dismiss a prospective juror who asserted that she could not give her full attention and energy to serving on the jury. If a working class prospective juror made such an assertion about an inability to focus on the case for personal reasons, it might not be deemed contemptuous -- but it could surely draw a chastising admonition and "how dare you" lecture from some judges.

In the big picture, the Thomas criminal jury trial sought, on the one hand, to vindicate the interests of all the "people of the state of California" in protecting three young alleged victims of child molestation. On the other hand, a juror may also perform a public service of great importance for a defendant like Mr. Thomas, should he be wrongfully accused of a crime.

By prompting her excusal from the public service of being a juror, Whitman ducked out of participation in the judicial process in which all the citizens of California have an interest. One can only wonder what the defendant or families of any of the victims in the courtroom thought about the importance of Whitman's campaign schedule when compared to the importance to the community of the trial that was about to commence.

Whitman's transparently engineered "pass" on jury service provides a compelling point of contrast with her opponent, former Governor Jerry Brown. Whitman has spent tens of millions on political commercials hammering Brown with accusations about various "failures" in his lengthy political life and various elective offices.

But there is one small historical public service in former Governor Brown's heyday I doubt we will see referenced in Whitman's television ads: the day in 1981 when, as the sitting governor of the largest state of the union, Jerry Brown reported to a courtroom for jury service. Unlike Whitman professing an incapacity to serve (due to her campaign to become governor), Brown, who was governor, sat on the jury and even served as the jury's foreperson!

Certainly it can be debated whether high political officeholders should serve in courtrooms as jurors during their term in office. The public may view such service as a demonstration of the principle that "no man" is above the law. In professing our commitment to the rule of law for everyone in our justice system, there is an attendant obligation on everyone to serve (when selected) in its administration. And, it is important that all citizens bear the same risk of having to interrupt their busy schedules of work and family when their name is called by the courtroom clerk.

Back in 1981 some observers may have thought Jerry Brown's service as a juror in a trial seemed like a bit of public grandstanding by the quirky and youthful governor who relished using a "common man" Plymouth state car and invited reporters to the sparsely furnished apartment he chose over living in the governor's mansion. Maybe it was just cloth coat showmanship by Jerry Brown.

But, in retrospect, a busy governor who journeyed to a county courthouse to sit and await his possible selection from the jury wheel -- like any other citizen called to assist the justice system in which we all have a stake -- seems like a symbolic gesture of political equality with the citizens who elected him that was well worth making. Meg Whitman apparently is not interested in making such a gesture.

Justice administered by public or private judges

When it comes to embracing the public judicial processes designed to determine whether wrongs have been committed against others, this was not the first time Whitman sought to avoid involvement. Based on an incident in her past (revealed a few months ago during the primary campaign), one would think that Whitman might be particularly sensitive to society's interest in fair legal adjudications when a person is accused of assaultive wrongdoing.

In such situations there needs to be an inquiry into the truth of the accusation. And if the allegation is admitted or found to be true, there may be a need for public input about the penalty to be paid or any recompense owed by the transgressing offender. This should be recognized by Ms. Whitman of all people since, you see, she has been the target of such an accusation of wrongdoing.

While presiding over her eBay empire, an employee approached Whitman with some work information that displeased Whitman. Whitman reportedly responded by physically assaulting the employee. Whitman's conduct -- instead of being alleged as the crime of assault or battery as might happen to ordinary people outside the office suites of eBay -- was the subject of a "civil" lawsuit instead of a criminal case.

Had her attorneys not arranged for mediation by a private judge, Whitman's conduct toward the employee in the incident could have been a part of a civil lawsuit in a San Mateo county courtroom. Lawsuits between litigants who cannot afford private judges might be tried before a jury like the one for which Whitman's services were sought. The employee, Young Mi Kim, was preparing Ms. Whitman for a news media interview that day. Ms. Kim, who was not injured in the incident, hired a lawyer and threatened a lawsuit, but the dispute was resolved under the supervision of a private mediator.

Two of the former employees said the company paid a six-figure financial settlement to Ms. Kim, which one of them characterized as "around $200,000." An agreement to keep the matter confidential was also part of the settlement, and the authorities were not involved.

People without the means of Meg Whitman to channel their legal disputes into a private system frequently suffer the indignity that the "authorities... are involved."

Meg Whitman, like any California citizen, should not break laws or workplace rules (even in her executive suite). But under pressure such things happen. The point is not the distemper shown by the incident. The point is that when such a misdeed was alleged against Whitman, she used her wealth and attorneys to insure that the public justice system -- which utilizes juries and elected judges -- played no role in the resolution of legal proceedings conducted secretly behind closed doors.

California voters can all wonder whether, if elected, Whitman will have more confidence in our state's public judicial system than she had when her own behavior and treasure might have been on trial.

Too busy to vote

None of Whitman's reluctance about personal involvement in California's judicial processes might have much resonance were it not for another instance of her lack of personal commitment to California public life in a way that has been well documented: Whitman did not vote for many years. As published in the Sacramento Bee:

'How bad is Meg Whitman's voting record?' In Whitman's own words: 'Atrocious.' A Bee review found Whitman for years regularly skipped elections in California and several other states where she lived and worked before deciding to run for governor.

On this score, of course, she is no different from Carly Fiorina, the other high profile businesswoman running for statewide office (the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Barbara Boxer). Millions of Californians, who they seek to represent, have found the time to vote throughout their lives. However, as aspiring leaders in the business world neither of the two statewide Republican standard bearers could take a few moments from their busy day to go to a polling place or fill out an absentee ballot for mailing. But now, having shown little interest during their money making careers in the "public service" of voting to select our political leaders, they profess their newly found commitment to public service as one of those leaders.

What Whitman's personal choices reveal about her worldview

Whitman does not appear to share the belief that a political leader should share in some kind of kinship of sacrifice with the voters. Whitman's "non-voting" record, as well as her avoidance of other public aspects of life such as jury duty, demonstrate that none of these failures to participate are momentary MIA lapses. Instead they demonstrate a solipsistic absorption in her own drive to succeed and a deep seated indifference to any public service that she believes is beneath her station in life.

Leona Helmsley famously noted that only the "little people pay taxes." Whitman, it would seem, shares that Helmsley world view when it comes to similar public obligations of citizenship like serving on juries and voting.

After Whitman obtained her excuse from having to serve as a juror, fortunately -- for the people of the state who want to see state laws protecting children from child molesters enforced in courtrooms that require jurors for their function -- there were still some "little people" left in the venire from which a jury could be empanelled.

For a number of days in the coming weeks, one of those "little people" will sit in silence in the jury box (in the seat that might have been Whitman's) listening to the evidence. That juror will be doing so during days of absence from her workplace: or, if she works at home, after patching together a network of relatives and neighbors to care for her children or elderly parents as she reports to the courtroom each day. That little person -- who replaced Whitman in the jury box - will be performing the public service candidate Whitman was too distracted, she avowed, to perform. For the juror left behind to serve in Whitman's place, it too will have been "not a good time for me to give 100 percent" as Whitman complained.

But there will soon come a November Tuesday morning when all California voters -- not unlike the juror who had to occupy the seat Whitman avoided this week -- will have a chance to decide whether to elect Whitman governor. When that moment comes, perhaps the voters will decide that a history of committed participation versus studied indifference toward the obligations of citizenship in California should be a factor in their decision about how to cast a vote.

This article was originally published on truthdig.com on September 9, 2010.