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Is Brown's new ad accurate? Depends on what the definition of 'paid' is

October 4, 2010 |  9:00 am

Jerry Brown hit the airwaves with two new ads Friday -- one focused on his record, another focused on Meg Whitman. And as with all things in this campaign, Whitman's campaign responded quickly with a litany of facts, accusations and a red herring or two, just for good measure.

The ad that stirred the reaction from Team Whitman was the one that focuses on her. It reprises the story of Whitman's time on the board of Goldman Sachs, where she was dinged for an insider stock-trading practice known as "spinning." The ad says Whitman "paid herself $120 million right before the company laid off 10% of its workers" during her last year at the company.

Whitman spokeswoman Andrea Jones Rivera quickly sent a statement to reporters after the Brown campaign released the spot, calling the ad a "lie." She cited documents that show Whitman's salary of $879,808 that year. But in September 2008, Forbes Magazine named Whitman the highest-paid woman in America with a one-year compensation of $120,427,360. (Fortune Magazine ranked Whitman as their 11th-most powerful woman in the country in that year, citing her total compensation of $11.9 million in 2007. Whitman stepped down as EBay's chief executive in March 2008, but remained with the company as a senior advisor through 2008.)

So who's right? Well the assertion in Brown's ad that Whitman "paid herself" the salary is incorrect. As Rivera points out, Whitman's salary was approved by the EBay board, as was her stock package. While Rivera cites Whitman's "salary," Brown uses the word "paid." Forbes explained their compensation figure included "salary and cash bonuses; other compensation, such as vested stock grants; and stock gains, the value realized by exercised stock options."

As with many large companies, salary is often just a small portion of an overall compensation package. Stock options and other bonuses are often worth many times more than an executive's base salary. For someone who is running as a Sacramento outsider, her campaign operation is parsing language like a political pro.

As for the Goldman Sachs portion of the ad, the Whitman statement did nothing to refute the facts presented in Brown's ad -- facts that were first reported years ago. She simply points out that Brown's sister, Kathleen, works at Goldman. Kathleen Brown was never accused of any wrongdoing involving stock trading. And of course, Kathleen Brown is not on the ballot (though she did run for governor in 1994).

Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said the campaign's spin was indicative of how the Whitman campaign handles most charges levied against the Republican nominee -- by trying to change the subject.

"I think it's pretty typical of Whitman," he said. "Anything to avoid accountability."

-- Anthony York in Sacramento