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In the tight-lipped, money-driven world of California politics, McGeorge School of Law Professor J. Clark Kelso is reminiscent of Harvey Keitel’s “Pulp Fiction” character, Winston Wolf. He solves problems. On a rainy Monday morning last month, Kelso, who had just been appointed chief deputy and interim director of the Department of Information Technology, was working from a hallway bench on the third floor of the state capitol in Sacramento. Directly above him on the fourth floor, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee was grilling witnesses about their role in a flawed $97 million software contract California entered into with Oracle Corp. One of those testifying was the man Kelso was replacing, former DOIT Director Elias Cortez. Gov. Gray Davis suspended Cortez last month after a state auditor’s report showed that the Oracle deal he reportedly championed was pushed through with little review and could end up costing taxpayers as much as $41 million. Just as he did two years before, when former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush was forced out by scandal, Kelso, 42, had been brought in to smooth things over — to take control of an embattled agency and pave the way for a permanent replacement. He’s got the r�sum� for it. He revamped the Department of Insurance after it was discovered that Quackenbush let insurance companies slide on their Northridge earthquake settlements in exchange for campaign funds. Kelso also has worked closely with legislative leaders and is the director of the Capital Center for Government Law and Policy at McGeorge. The constitutional law scholar has worked extensively with all three branches of government, served as a consultant on myriad government projects, including trial court unification, and he has experience with information technology issues. Kelso is also safe. In a town that runs on political favors and partisan loyalty, Kelso — who happens to be a Republican — carries little political baggage and is respected on both sides of the aisle. That’s a rare attribute, and one that’s attractive to a governor running for re-election while trying to fight off allegations that his office pressed for the deal in exchange for campaign money. It also helps explain how he was selected to take over the Department of Insurance two years ago by the unlikely duo of Quackenbush, a Republican, and Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a populist Democrat. Davis didn’t get involved at the time, but didn’t object to the appointment either. This time, Davis sought Kelso out. So far, Republicans trying to pin the Oracle deal on Davis and Democrats wishing to protect the governor seem content with the selection. “He seems to be the guy Davis goes to; to be Mr. Fix-It,” said Sen. Ray Haynes, R-Riverside, a conservative lawmaker and a member of the audit committee investigating the Oracle contract. That said, Haynes, who says he’s only met Kelso twice — when he took over insurance and when he took over DOIT — said he trusts Kelso. “Kelso has no dog in any of these hunts,” he said. Kelso has established a reputation of being someone who can honestly evaluate what’s going on, Haynes said, and make the appropriate appraisals free of political influence. “I think he’s got the credentials,” Haynes said. “He’s not going to be the servant of the people [trying to influence technology contracts].” Sen. Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, another conservative member of the Legislature and the Republican candidate for attorney general, has worked with Kelso on other matters and called him, “a solid guy.” “I think [DOIT] should be eliminated, but I have no problem with [Kelso],” he said. Former Stockton Sen. Patrick Johnston, a Democrat, goes so far as to call Kelso the George Mitchell of state government. Mitchell, a former Maine senator, was known as someone presidents could count on to deal with troubled areas of the world, and he brokered the Northern Ireland peace agreements that were ratified in 1998. “The governor and the Legislature entrust troubled state offices to Clark Kelso,” Johnston said. He also described Kelso as scrupulously honest, very smart and a person who has the public interest in mind. “Someday we’ll have to get him to stay in a government job,” he said. DOWN THE MIDDLE Although Kelso’s law professor father, Charles Kelso, has a reputation for being a staunch Republican, Kelso is looked at as more of a centrist who keeps his political views to himself. In fact, Ackerman said he didn’t know if Kelso was a Democrat or a Republican. “I couldn’t even tell you any political opinion he’s given,” Ackerman said. “I’ve never heard Clark express his political views,” said a recent McGeorge graduate who knows Kelso. “He seems to run right down the middle.” Steve Maviglio, Davis’ press secretary, said Kelso was chosen, in large part, because of the work he did at the Department of Insurance. “He has impeccable credentials and a strong track record for turning agencies around,” Maviglio said. “He took over an embattled agency and in a matter of months he restored credibility to the office.” Kelso will serve as interim director until July 1 when the office shuts down, but will stay on as an adviser to the governor and the Legislature. Maviglio says no date has been set for his departure. He also couldn’t say just what exactly will become of the department. Kelso’s job is to make sure DOIT continues to function until its sunset date and to map out the future of the state’s IT practices. That includes not only reviewing the existing laws and policies that govern the department, but also looking at what kinds of checks and balances should be in place to prevent a replay of the Oracle debacle. He’s expected to make his preliminary recommendations known soon, Maviglio said, adding that Kelso will also have a say in who should take over the remnants of DOIT. Shortly after his appointment, Kelso said that a mature manager should be tapped to head up whatever department evolves out of DOIT. He said Davis should look for someone along the lines of former First District Court of Appeal Justice Harry Low, who took over as insurance commissioner. Since taking over DOIT May 16, Kelso has downplayed his Mr. Fix-It credentials. “I’m not always the guy,” Kelso laughed, when asked why he again had been chosen to take over an agency embroiled in scandal. Nor does he believe that political calculations had any bearing on him receiving the $104,500 per year job. Instead he chalked up the appointment to his flexible schedule. As a law professor, he said, he has the luxury of taking the summer off, although a busy schedule means the part-time tenor and thespian will again have to pass on performing in the Music Circus — an annual Sacramento theater event. Kelso said there are subtle differences between his work at DOIT and his work turning around the Department of Insurance. For instance, many of the people at the Department of Insurance were caught up in the scandal. “At DOIT there’s little of that,” he said. “I’m trying to get them focused on the job. At DOIT people are worried about their paycheck.” Kelso said he’s studying similar IT failures in other states and looking at how those states were able to salvage their technology divisions in order to provide better technology coordination and a higher return on technology investments. “The state needs to continue to have people who do what the people at DOIT do,” he said. Last week Kelso was at a Sacramento hotel hosting a McGeorge-sponsored conference on criminal justice. Despite being the host as well as a panelist, Kelso continually fielded calls from DOIT staffers on his cell phone. By lunchtime it was announced that Kelso had been called away. At that point Mike Curran, McGeorge’s communications director, said he had an idea for a promotional photo. In a takeoff on a local pest control commercial, he’d dress Kelso in an exterminator suit and put him in front of a white van. The slogan? “Clark, we need you.”

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