The Orange County Register
By Teri Sforza
‘Tis better to give than to receive, they say — especially when you’re giving someone else’s money.
Since 2011, California public officials have steered more than $74.5 million of other people’s money to their favorite causes and charities, often donated by business and other entities hoping to influence elected leaders, demonstrate their stellar citizenship to the masses, or perhaps a bit of both.
While state law sets caps on gifts and campaign contributions to politicians, there’s no limit on so-called “behested payments” to politicians’ pet projects. Critics say it’s another way for the well-heeled to curry official favor, while lawmakers say they’re simply using the power of their bully pulpits to make the world a better place.
Nine pols facilitated behests worth more than $1 million each since 2011, according to data from the Fair Political Practices Commission. They were overwhelmingly from the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego, while officials from Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties displayed their more conservative leanings, facilitating behests that look paltry by comparison.
No. 1: Gov. Jerry Brown was the most prolific at helping money change hands for charities, reporting behests of more than $22 million. Most of that money went to two charter schools he founded in Oakland – $13 million to the Oakland Military Institute College Prep Academy (“develops leaders of character by providing a rigorous seven-year college preparatory program to promote excellence in the four pillars of academics, leadership, citizenship, and athletics”) and $5.8 million to the Oakland School for the Arts (“Immersive arts experiences in a college preparatory setting, providing students unique opportunities for learning, innovation, expression and personal growth”).
No. 2: Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, R-San Diego, was next, shepherding $12.7 million in government grants and tax credits to businesses. Nearly half – $6 million – went to Poway’s Transportation Power, Inc., to develop alternative fuel and vehicle technology. A $2 million tax credit went to San Diego ship builder General Dynamics NASSCO; a $1.85 million tax credit went to San Diego’s Pacific Steel Group; and $1 million grant went to the Chino nonprofit River Partners to restore riparian habitat. A 2015 law removed such government grants and credits as reportable behests, so Maienschein will presumably fall much farther down the list going forward.
No. 3: Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, tallied up $5.5 million in behests. Most of that went to Oakland’s Viridis Fuels – $3.4 million – as a grant from the California Energy Commission to develop alternative fuel and vehicle technology. Another $1 million went to Chino’s River Partners to restore riparian habitat; and $500,000 to Bring Me a Book in Mountain View, to support the Bay Area’s early literacy initiative for preschoolers through use of technology.
No. 4: State schools superintendent Tom Torlakson helped $2.9 million change hands. The overwhelming majority of that went to the the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation in Dublin, which was formed after Torlakson unveiled his “Blueprint for Great Schools” reform agenda in 2011 “to incubate and elevate promising statewide initiatives that otherwise lacked institutional capacity.”
No. 5: Former California Attorney General and current U.S. Senator Kamala Harris reported $1.85 million in behests. That includes $405,000 for the Los Angeles Mission College Foundation; $400,000 for Five Keys Charter School in San Francisco (nonprofit operating accredited charter schools and programs for transitional foster youth); and $348,500 for the Attorney General inaugural fund.
No. 6: Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, $1.5 million. The bulk of it – $1.4 million – went to the California Legislative Black Caucus Policy Institute (nonprofit supporting African-American culture and the participation of African-Americans in society, as well as educating the public about issues).
No. 7: Former Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, $1.3 million. About half – $710,000 – went to the State Legislative Leaders Foundation (“a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to professional development for our nation’s current and future state legislative leaders”) and $206,500 went to Proyecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission (“a non-profit organization working in the economically and politically disenfranchised community of Boyle Heights”).
No. 8: Assemblyman Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, $1 million. All of it went to the California Legislative Black Caucus Policy Institute.
No. 9: Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, $1 million. The bulk of it – $800,000 – went to the Maritime Museum of San Diego.
Orange County’s electeds were mostly chintzy by comparison (Tony Mendoza, $233,000; Diane Harkey, $142,448; Bill Brough, $50,000; Jim Silva, 49,198; Lou Correa, $40,014; Mimi Walters, $38,417; Chuck DeVore, $36,444; Tom Daly, Janet Nguyen, Jose Solorio and Sharon Quirk-Silva, $20,000 each; Pat Bates and Tom Harmon, $10,000 each; Steven Choi, Allan Mansoor and John Moorlach, $5,000 each).
In Riverside and San Bernardino, Assemblywoman Marie Waldron reported $810,000, almost all for the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Richard Roth reported $120,000; Anthony Portantino, $101,489; Jean Fuller, $54,198; Chris Holden, $27,500; Mike Morrell and Melissa Melendez, $10,000 each; Jeff Stone, Chad Mayes, Eduardo Garcia, Jose Medina, Thomas Lackey, $5,000 each.
The $22 million shepherded by Gov. Brown came from hundreds of donors, including glitzy types like SKYY vodka’s creator, Maurice Kanbar of San Francisco (who gave $1 million to the Oakland Military Institute through the Maurice S. Kanbar Revocable Trust); and no-nonsense business types like Home Depot of Orange, which donated $794,795 to the California Conservation Corps Foundation in Sacramento to provide drought relief kits to disadvantaged homeowners.
About one-third of total behests — and the biggest chunks of change — came as grants and tax credits from the government itself. The California Energy Commission distributed $9.4 million; the California Coastal Conservancy, $9 million; the Governor’s Office of Business & Economic Development (GO-Biz), $4.9 million; the California State Wildlife Conservation Board and Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, $1 million each. Such grants no longer need to be reported as behests.
But the overwhelming majority came from private givers, some who may have business pending in one state office or another.
The biggest private giver was the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which donated $1.5 million in employee time to work on cases for the state via nearly three dozen individual lawmakers, including former and current lawmakers Mimi Walters, Jim Silva, Sam Blakeslee, Chuck DeVore, Diane Harkey and Ted Gaines, according to the data.
Donations from AT&T totaled nearly $1.4 million, also via dozens of lawmakers, including the governor, Mitchell and Sen. Kevin De Leon.
The Barona Band Mission Indians, with a casino in San Diego, gave $1.15 million via more than 100 lawmakers, mostly in behests of $5,000 and $10,000. Those
officials included Gov. Brown, Jones-Sawyer, Sen. Joel Anderson, Sen. Toni Atkins and a great many more.
Pros & Cons
Evan Westrup, spokesman for Gov. Brown, said the behests do good.
“These donations represent an opportunity for foundations, businesses and individuals to invest in their communities and help students succeed,” Westrup said by email. “The governor is very proud of the two schools he founded in Oakland
more than a decade ago, which have served thousands of Bay Area students – many the first in their family to go on to college.”
Assemblywoman Gonzalez Fletcher agreed. “I am proud to do everything in my power to help every worthy non-profit that asks me for help,” she said in a prepared statement. “Clearly, since I am only number nine, I have more work to do.”
Jace Duval, spokesman for VSP, said nearly all of its behested payments represent the value of charitable eye care services it provides to underserved populations.
“These efforts align with our longstanding goal as a company to close the gap in access to eye care in California and globally,” Duval said in a written statement. “Our charitable services include comprehensive eye exams provided by VSP network doctors aboard our mobile eye care clinics, prescription glasses, or gift certificates which are distributed and then can be used to receive eye care services from a doctor who participates in our network. In California that’s more than 6,300 doctors.”
The care is reported as behested payments because elected official requested eye care be provided for their needy constituents, he said.
Observers are skeptical.
“Bottom line – this is another way to ‘win friends and influence people,’ to borrow a line from the title of Dale Carnegie’s famous book,” said Mark Petracca, political science professor at UC Irvine. “In a sense, these funds are being ‘laundered’ through elected officials, to the benefit of the elected officials in so far as their ‘generosity’ can be praised, celebrated … and of course, advertised.
“The people/corporations, etc., who donate benefit via the good will they create with the electeds, the electeds benefit via the good will they generate with the organizations which receive these bonuses (and from the clients/users of these organizations), and those who receive the money certainly benefit. While not an ‘iron triangle’ (about which so much has been written in political science going back to the early 1960s), it is a mutually beneficial triangle of some sort.”
Fred Smoller, political science professor at Chapman University, said behests are a legal way to dodge campaign finance laws.
“Why a behest? If the foundation wants to give money to a nonprofit because they believe in what they are doing, then just do it,” Smoller said. “Clearly it’s an effort to ingratiate themselves with the elected, and the elected’s effort to increase his or her political footprint.
“Also, it undermines the integrity and credibility of the person’s office. Let’s say there’s a judge who presides over big tobacco cases. What if Phillip Morris, the cigarette company, gave millions to her favorite charity in the judge’s name? Does that pass your ‘stink’ test? The behest giving suggests a secret agenda.”