Tribe Donates to Schools Chosen by State Lawmakers
SACRAMENTO, CA — The Barona Band of Mission Indians has made state elected officials a generous offer. The tribe will contribute $5,000 to any public or private school a legislator selects in his or her district.
The program, an example of the millions in charitable spending directed by legislators each year, is wildly popular among lawmakers and school officials.
“I wish more organizations would do that,” said Assemblyman Joel Anderson, R-La Mesa. “It’s a big chunk of change that they are donating.”
So what could be wrong with a wealthy tribe sharing some of its casino-generated revenues with struggling schools?
Plenty, according to some campaign finance reform advocates.
Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said that even a program as seemingly innocuous as the Barona Education Grant has an ulterior motive: to curry favor with lawmakers.
The education program is an example of an unusual category of giving that mixes charity and politics.
These contributions, called behested payments, occur when a legislator directs an individual or interest group to give money to a specific charity or nonprofit organization.
Officially, they are considered neither a personal gift nor a political contribution, which are both strictly limited under California law. As a result, these donations can be unlimited.
Several lawmakers have been criticized for directing behested payments to nonprofit groups that promote the lawmaker.
This year, Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit group, filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission charging then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, with violating state law by raising $270,000 for a nonprofit that put on events promoting him. Among the events cited was the “Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez Toy Drive.”
In 2007, state Sen. Tom McClintock, the Thousand Oaks Republican now running for Congress, raised $40,300 for a nonprofit organization whose main mission is to provide a “forum for Tom McClintock and other articulate conservatives.”
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, raised money, including $100,000 from San Diego Padres owner John Moores, for a nonprofit group that promoted infrastructure improvements, but also paid for ads praising Perata.
“In those circumstances, there is clearly a benefit to the politician,” said Carmen Balber of Consumer Watchdog.
But many donations have gone to well-known charities, including those that support breast cancer research, homeless shelters and literacy projects.
Stern and others contend that no matter how worthy the charity, the payments are used by powerful players to ingratiate themselves with legislators.
“There is a business reason for doing this,” he said.
Barona has numerous issues in front of the Legislature just like other groups – including AT&T, Wells Fargo and E&J Gallo Winery – that have donated to pet causes of legislators.
Card clubs, including Ocean’s Eleven in Oceanside, the Hollywood Park Casino and the Bicycle Casino, which are all regulated by state Attorney General Jerry Brown, have all given thousands of dollars at Brown’s request to two charter schools he set up in Oakland.
Brown, a potential candidate for governor in 2010, has raised millions for the charter schools over the years.
Stern applauds Barona’s donations to schools, but he said there is no need to involve a lawmaker.
“Why wouldn’t they just do it with the school district?” he asked. “A school district official, a parent or a teacher would know much better who needs a $5,000 grant, but the school district official doesn’t vote on matters affecting the tribe.”
Sheilla Alvarez, director of government affairs for Barona, said legislators are involved because of their knowledge.
“We figure that a legislator knows best about the needs of a school in their district,” she said. Alvarez said the program was developed by Barona Tribal Chairwoman Rhonda Welch-Scalco, who is pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of California Riverside.
“The tribe really wants to reach out and help the kids throughout California,” Alvarez said.
Barona has given numerous grants to schools this year, including two in Anderson’s name: one to the La Mesa Dale Elementary School and another to Dehesa Elementary School.
Anderson, who has been to two ceremonies to deliver checks, said he is amazed that some lawmakers do not participate.
“I don’t gain personally, but my schools do and I think that is a good thing,” he said.
As of the beginning of this year, Barona said it had donated more than $300,000 to schools through the program. According to the tribe’s Web site, the grants have been used to buy laptops, library books, audio/visual equipment, textbooks, software and even seeds to start school gardens.
Behested payments were born out of confusion over whether these donations could be considered gifts, which are limited to $390 per source per legislator each year, or political contributions, which are limited to $3,600 per source per election.
A 1997 law paved the way for these contributions and allowed them to be unlimited. The law did require the charitable contributions to be recorded. But few people knew about them because the documents were stored at the Sacramento office of the Fair Political Practices Commission.
That changed last year when FPPC Chairman Ross Johnson and Roman Porter, now the FPPC’s executive director, decided to put them on the agency’s Web site, http://www.fppc.ca.gov.
The decision has been widely applauded.
“The agency has received rave reviews, not only from the media, but from the public,” Porter said.
Stern said that putting the information online was “absolutely critical” because it increased public scrutiny.
Lawmakers, however, support a little less publicity.
In 2007, both houses of the Legislature unanimously approved legislation that would have increased the reporting requirement of these donations from $5,000 to $7,000 and extended the deadline for reporting from 30 days to 90 days.
After Johnson voiced strong opposition, lawmakers withdrew the bill from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk when the governor made it clear that it would be vetoed.
State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, a strong proponent of behested payments, directed Verizon and AT&T to give money to San Diego charities this year.
Verizon donated $25,000 to The Center, a social services agency that helps gays and lesbians, and $20,000 to Rachel’s Women’s Center, which serves homeless and low-income women.
AT&T gave $5,000 to Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater and $5,000 to Gompers Charter Middle School. Gompers used the money to make up a shortfall for a trip to Washington, D.C.
Kehoe, as chairwoman of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, may have more influence than other lawmakers on legislation affecting AT&T and Verizon.
Balber of Consumer Watchdog said she believes that “when Verizon and AT&T give those contributions, they are looking for greater access to Senator Kehoe.”
Kehoe disagrees. She believes they were just looking for advice.
“It’s a very worthy way to give corporations like Verizon and AT&T some specific directions and point them toward organizations that aren’t on the corporations’ radar,” she said. “I also like to point them to groups where there is some urgency.”