By Zach Arnold | April 17, 2014
This article has been updated (at the bottom) in response to an allegation being made in response to what was originally written here.
The last few weeks have seen quite a bit of turmoil with the major state Athletic Commissions. David Berlin, a New York lawyer and former boxing manager who is close to Teddy Atlas & Michael Bloomberg, will now take over as Executive Director at the New York State Athletic Commission. What a job to walk into given that NYSAC got sued by the family of boxer Magomed Abdusalamov for $100 million USD.
Then came the news last week that Dickie Coles is out at the Texas commission. Good riddance. Wonder what this means for his son’s future. Will he continue to be a major player in the promoter bond business?
But the real action right now is in Sacramento and Las Vegas because of Andy Foster. When Keith Kizer resigned last January, Andy Foster had spent weeks telling everyone — including his closest allies — that he had no interest in applying for Nevada’s job. But something changed. According to multiple state sources, Andy was “prodded” into applying for the job. Additionally, there were allegedly some issues regarding professional stress impacting home life.
And on Saturday afternoon, Foster came in acting as a second coming of Haley Barbour and brought an overwhelming presence to his job interview. To the point that the Athletic Commission, which was supposed to make a decision that same day on a new Executive Director, called for time-out.
A decision was going to be made on Friday at 3 PM. The day before that decision was to be made, Andy Foster withdrew his name from the Nevada job… after he was named a finalist… and after he interviewed passionately on why he was the right man.
On Wednesday night at a Michael King boxing show in Santa Monica with Che Guevara working, Andy Foster reportedly told multiple people on the ground that he had “second thoughts” about what he did in applying for Nevada. You can read in between the lines if you would like.
And now Andy’s gamble to apply & interview for the Nevada State Athletic Commission job is about to backfire in a big way. It means he has to go back to Sacramento as a lame duck with diminished political power, a more stressful home life, and a group of inspectors & officials who will now be hesitant to back him 100% because he had one foot out the door.
If the UFC thinks that they can have their cake & eat it too with two long-term “friendly” allies in Andy Foster in California & someone else in Nevada, this calculation long-term will prove to be absolutely wrong.
Political lessons to be learned
Andy Foster isn’t a creation of the Department of Consumer Affairs. 18 months ago, he walked into Sacramento and told everyone he was going to clean up the mess. One of the ways he was going to do it was to become a big-time politician by dealing with lobbyists and legislative aides at the state Capitol. if he had to bypass Consumer Affairs, then so be it.
When he encountered troubles regarding placing bids for items to buy with state funds, he ended up with a Consumer Affairs worker named Sophia Cornejo who was inserted into the front office as an Assistant Executive Officer. A set of eyes on Andy, if you will.
But there is no emotional attachment by Consumer Affairs towards Andy Foster. He has no political cover despite what he has told others or what he personally thinks. Inside the Consumer Affairs ecosystem, he’s a guy. Nothing more, nothing less.
If there is anything we have learned over the last decade in regards to California’s athletic commission, it is the following:
The Department of Consumer Affairs remains undefeated and continues to pummel Executive Officers by knockout. And standing above every Consumer Affairs boss and Executive Officer that has come-and-gone from Sacramento over the last decade is one man: DCA lawyer & political broker Spencer Walker. He was also appointed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the post of senior advisor to the director of the Department of Consumer Affairs several years ago. Spencer is the man.
Spencer Walker isn’t someone who is going to be involved in the daily work of running an athletic commission. He’s one of the top political figures at the Department of Consumer Affairs. He’s a survivor. His background is from Corrections.
Here’s a clue to anybody wanting to challenge him: you’re wasting your breath if you think letter-writing campaigns or public comment sessions at meetings is going to get you anywhere.
Spencer is a DCA rock star who can control and manipulate decisions from a 30,000 ft. level. He enjoys all the benefits of being a Sacramento power player without having to do the heavy lifting. He shows up at various DCA public meetings, acts as the authority figure, and is the one who controls the temperature of the room. He can pull this off because there is a vacuum for leadership. Watch Spencer in action at the last Athletic Commission meeting a few weeks ago:
And whenever a situation gets too hot for Spencer, he can simply revert to the background and let the fire roast someone else. Why is Spencer a leader who overrules others? Because he can. He has the political power. Whatever Spencer wants to enforce, he will enforce. If you come at the king, you best not miss.
And now that Andy Foster failed to get the Nevada job, Spencer Walker & Consumer Affairs will have Andy’s testicles in a political lock box. The turf wars amongst multiple parties in multiple camps is about to break out. But there will only be one winner.
The turf war will not break out immediately, but the traps will be set soon enough. Any loyalties will quickly fall by the way-side. Everyone will be in it for themselves. Andy’s problem won’t be the officials or the grunts on the ground. His problem is going to be with the politicos in Sacramento who can quickly turn on a dime.
The back story on Spencer Walker
Spencer survived the Armando Garcia era where revenues were $2 million USD a year. He survived Garcia’s replacement, DCA lifer Dave Thornton (still on the payroll). Garcia left after a $75,000 DCA settlement with DCA employee & athletic inspector Lilia Galvez, only to replaced by a man in Thornton who cost DCA a $750,000 legal settlement for racial & sexual harassment. After Thornton came Bill Douglas, a non-fighter version of Andy Foster who seemed media savvy and a person who Consumer Affairs thought they could control. They couldn’t. And now Douglas is out of state work.
After the Thornton stint, here came the two outsiders. Despite having the perfect candidate in lawyer & former fight manager Ron Arnold, DCA went with George Dodd from Washington state. He didn’t know California law. He was someone who would work within the Consumer Affairs system. CSAC would remain attached to Consumer Affairs rather than build independence. Dodd got in some budget trouble with the commission regarding athletic inspectors, who are paid & treated as intermittent state employees. Then came the illegal threats towards Dodd that he would be financially responsible for any expenditures over the allotted amount spent per fiscal year. When there was push back against Sacramento’s attempts to get rid of Dodd, all the individuals who tried to stand up to the state got pushed aside by the politicos.
With the Athletic Commission in disrepair due to interference amongst the highest of bureaucrats in Sacramento, in came Andy Foster to try to fix damage by individuals who shouldn’t have caused trouble in the first place. Shackled with budget spending restraints in order to try to build up cash reserves, Mr. Foster found himself stuck with $1.2 million USD budgets at a time where big PPV fights weren’t coming to the state. In California, boxing is king. And, yet, Consumer Affairs turned to an MMA guy whose focus would be squarely on MMA. Andy Foster’s track record on MMA affairs has been solid in California. His track record on boxing affairs in the state, however, has been deficient.
Despite building up cash reserves for the Athletic Commission, Mr. Foster admitted at the last Athletic Commission meeting in Los Angeles that he was threatened by DCA with the same kinds of financial threats that were given to George Dodd. Two days later, Nevada sandbagged Foster and other finalists in various states by releasing their names for the April Fool’s meeting in Las Vegas. Andy had told his allies for months in California that he had no interest in the Nevada job and would not apply. Nevada releasing his name publicly made a fool out of his allies who felt burned because they were misled.
And after 18 months on the job in Sacramento, Andy Foster tried to head for the exits. Now he has to go back to Sacramento with his tail between his legs and a career decision to make: does he try to outlast the indefatigable Spencer Walker or does he pack up and get out of the state before he’s eventually forced out?
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a chance to interview people in and around Consumer Affairs. Top insiders made the claim to me that Spencer’s biggest career goal is to flex his legal muscle and convince the Governor’s office to give him a trial court judge appointment. This is a man with a lot of ambition and more clout in Sacramento than Andy.
The grass would have been greener in Nevada for Andy Foster
There are plenty of reasons why Andy Foster tried to bolt for Las Vegas after such a short stay in Sacramento. In Nevada, the political power players ruling the regulatory climate are in the Lorenzo Fertitta/Marc Ratner/Sig Rogich axis. Boxing may bring in the big cash for Las Vegas but the casinos run the state and Lorenzo not only has the cash, he also has the experience & knowledge of getting down & dirty in state politics. Boxing promoters in the 1990s failed to recognize this as an important step in building political leverage. Lorenzo outsmarted them. And now he holds the kind of sway over athletic commissions that other promoters can only dream about. Andy Foster is all about Mixed Martial Arts. He’s someone the UFC can work with and exert influence over.
In comparison to California, Nevada has a significantly less active event schedule but the high-end fights are much more substantial than anything California can attract. There is also far less time spent traveling to work shows in Nevada, given the only two areas with any sort of activity are Reno and Vegas. In California, travel is a constant and it is really hard if you are trying to keep your family intact while spending late hours at the office and weekends at events. Not easy.
But the biggest difference between California and Nevada is that despite the high-stakes nature of Nevada politics, the scene there is ultimately more predictable and controllable than Sacramento. Sacramento is out of control right now. The hierarchy of Consumer Affairs is made up of former chiefs-of-staffs for top state Assembly & state Senate pols along with long-time lobbyists and political fixers. People whose names you’ve never heard of but have been drawing paychecks for three or four decades run the show. And they wield an extraordinary amount of power. These past few weeks has been quite illustrative on that matter.
In Nevada, the athletic inspectors are not state employees. And most of the casinos help out with the box offices so there aren’t any miscalculations. A lot of the work is done for the regulators. It’s really hard to screw up the Nevada job given the current system in place. In Nevada, Andy Foster would have fit into the political climate since he would have allowed the big egos in town do their thing and not get in their way.
Who can stop the turmoil in California? The game is rigged
Outsiders need not apply to function in Sacramento. It doesn’t work. George Dodd found this out the hard way and Andy Foster soon discovered this painful lesson. The only way an outsider can succeed in a position like the Athletic Commission is by having the following skill set:
- A person with deep Northern California roots or a California native who has a precise understanding of the culture of Sacramento and the way politics are played at the state Capitol
- A lawyer or paralegal with extensive experience dealing with California state law, including contract law
- A very skilled & diligent communicator who is openly transparent, both verbally and in writing, about everything and will tell people where they stand in crystal clear terms
- Someone who has experience as a promoter, a matchmaker, and perhaps an official or athletic inspector
- Someone who embraces both boxing & mixed martial arts on equal terms and can travel to all events
- Someone who will not fall into the trap of getting tied up in crony capitalistic deals and be star-struck by celebrities or fame of individuals they meet & deal with
- Someone with extensive knowledge or experience in regards to how the Office of Administrative Law functions
You’re not going to find many candidates who are qualified enough to match up to these requirements. But a few of them have existed in the past and still do exist. The problem is that as long as Consumer Affairs controls the Athletic Commission, they will not select an outsider that fits this mold. In Andy’s case, trying to reform a system that cannot be immediately reformed created a myriad of problems.
Why does Consumer Affairs burn through so many people at the Athletic Commission and what is it exactly that they want?
They want somebody who is an insider. A person who came up through their system and has insider knowledge of how the internal politics work. This isn’t a job for those trying to apply common sense or business logic. This is a job for someone who lives and breathes the political soap opera 24/7. A person who has knowledge of the fight business but also understands how the Capitol operates and also understands that DCA wants a front man but not a figurehead who completely overshadows the fixers behind the scenes.
After discovering what a train wreck it is trying to work in Sacramento, how can Andy Foster go back to a situation that is largely untenable? It’s entirely possible that he could survive for a year or so but the cost will be sacrificing his principles and philosophies. Will he sacrifice his heart for a paycheck?
Now that Andy has been passed over for the Nevada job, how will Consumer Affairs handle his return? They will initially be careful in their response. Expect a low-profile response at first. However, the Nevada news burned some bridges and there’s nothing worse than a pissed off paper pusher who is hellbent for revenge simply for the sake of a power play. George Dodd discovered this the hard way and Andy Foster is about to find out how hot the Sacramento seat truly is.
The last four months proved to be a struggle for Andy, both personally and professionally. Any attempts at a unified front with both Consumer Affairs and the Athletic Commission were vaporized. The in-fighting is escalating amongst the members. Everyone is back to looking out for themselves. And why will members of the Athletic Commission, let alone Consumer Affairs, have any incentive to back Andy in a struggle for power?
I honestly wouldn’t blame Andy if he resigned from Sacramento and went back home to Atlanta. He was never the right fit for Sacramento. California may be the biggest job for a combat sports regulator in the United States but it’s also the most toxic, with the exception of Florida perhaps. People in the fight business need to understand that Consumer Affairs views the Athletic Commission as a place to shuttle state workers around and a place where middle managers can flex their muscle to feel good about themselves. The actual job of regulating combat sports is secondary as a goal.
When Andy Foster eventually leaves California, DCA will have to recruit someone for the Executive Officer slot that appears to be an outsider but really is a current or former insider. And that person will have to answer to Spencer Walker if they want to survive.
“But, wait! What about the Athletic Commission picking an Executive Officer?!?”
The last time the Athletic Commission stood up to Consumer Affairs, it was June of 2012 when they tried to fight off DCA’s power play against George Dodd. And we know what happened afterwards. Eugene Hernandez was disposed of and Mike Munoz was ditched by one of Governor Jerry Brown’s top political fixers.
Until the athletic inspectors (considered intermittent state employees) & officials unionize, they will hold little or no political power in the state. And until the inspectors, promoters, and officials start filing lawsuits to right wrongs, nothing is going to change. It’s only going to become a more hostile environment. The faster the grunts on the ground figure this out, the better. But many of the grunts are too naive or dumb in terms of political savvy & knowledge and lack the balls to put up an educated fight. All they care about is getting event bookings, not realizing that the sausage-making process is determining how & why everything currently operates in a poisonously political way.
Addendum: And right on cue, here we go with the response:
Since I am a man of disclosure, I’ll address this little criticism here. Last February, I wrote a letter citing the California Public Records Act to request some e-mails. And then I got a bill estimate in March of over $12,000. Being accused of “seizing” e-mail records is an interesting way to label a media records request. Even more interesting is the fact that the records request apparently was leaked and discussed with other media writers. I suppose it was an attempt to chill. I just find it peculiar.