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Tom Durkin: Not bored in Sacramento

By Tom Durkin

“A lot of reporters find this kind of legal writing boring. Do you think that will be a problem for you?” my future boss asked. It was 1990 in Sacramento.

“The Auburn Journal always sent me out on boring stories because I never came back with one,” I answered without thinking.

Resume, elevator pitch, cover letter, coat & tie were all window dressing. It was my spontaneous response to that question that got me the job. I could see it in their eyes.



And so it was, I was hired by The Bureau of National Affairs Inc.” (aka BNA). Although I had no law degree, much less knowledge of California state law, legislation or litigation, I was the legal editor of the new California Employee Relations Report.

CERR was a bi-weekly (every other week) newsletter. My job was to track and write about the progress of legislation, regulation and litigation in employment law in the Golden State. My audience was mainly lobbyists, lawyers and legislative staff.



BNA is an institution in Washington, D.C., known for covering federal law for almost a century. Because California law often precedes and defines federal law, BNA decided to open a California bureau. By fate and circumstance, I was at the right place at the right time to be one of the first hires at BNA California.

ABOUT PAGE 43

Eventually, we grew to be a bureau of 14 deep-issue law reporters on employment, health care, environment, occupational safety and such. We had a bigger capitol news bureau than the Sacramento Bee, but outside of elite legal circles, we were unknown even to our fellow journalists.

One day, I read the entire 80-page workers compensation reform bill Gov. Pete Wilson was sponsoring. I found something curious on page 43 of the governor’s bill, so I suited up and went to his press conference.

Edged out by raucous TV and newspaper reporters, I was relegated to the back of the room. I was operating under strict BNA protocols to be polite, professional and apolitical. Still, I had this question. I raised my hand.

To my surprise, the governor chose me over other reporters obnoxiously clamoring for his attention.

“Thank you, Governor. On page 43 of your omnibus workers compensation reform bill, it says that workers comp insurance carriers shall not be obligated to reveal their financial records to the businesses that pay insurance premiums to them. Sir, discovering what insurance companies are doing with their premium dollars is one of the biggest demands of employers — your constituents. Why is this clause in the bill?”

The governor got a “deer caught in the headlines” look on his face. He weaseled out of a direct answer and quickly called on someone else – who repeated my question. As did the next reporter.

The press smelled blood. The governor never really did answer the question – because he really couldn’t. It was clear he’d sold out his constituents to the insurance companies.

DEEP-ISSUE REPORTING

We BNA California reporters kept a low profile, but when we showed up, we broke news. While other news organizations covered the surface news, we went deep. That’s how I was able to bust Gov. Wilson and the poison pill in his legislation.

That’s how I was able to conduct an exclusive interview with Speaker Willie Brown in the middle of another press conference. Only he and I knew what we were talking about.

And that’s how I broke through a gag order in CTA v. Gould. The California Teachers Association was suing the state for misappropriation of lottery funds earmarked for education.

Both sides trusted me to get the story straight. So, while the mainstream media were regurgitating press releases celebrating a $373 million initial settlement, I was able to report the actual settlement was for $1.76 billion over the next eight years.

FAILURE WITH A VIEW

BNA California was a fun gig – while it lasted. After five years, the Mother Ship in Washington decided to cut its $5 million in losses and close the California bureau.

My feeling was that if they had read my “boring,” best-practices reports on the cost benefits of having employees work from home, BNA could have saved $14,000 a month by abandoning our high-rise office.

Our two managers had splendid views of the Capitol building, but the rest of us worked mostly on computers and phones in windowless cubicles – work we could have done from home.

As it was, it took several decades and a pandemic to prove that remote work really is cost-effective.

I miss that gig. I was never bored.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County and a member of The Union Editorial Board. He may be contacted at tjdurkin3@gmail.com

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