Around San Diego's city hall, it's hard to argue with an institution called the "Pro Kids Golf Academy and Learning Center." And it's even harder to argue with Ernie Wright, a former Charger who says he founded Pro Kids eight years ago "in order to give our neighborhood kids a fighting chance at navigating this bumpy road we call life." Wright's nonprofit academy leases the Colina Park golf course from the city and uses it to teach golf to children from the surrounding, predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods. "I've been chairman since we started. We now have over 7000 kids in this area who are card-carrying Pro Kids golf academy members," Wright says. Padres owner John Moores kicked in a million dollars to start a $25 million endowment fund, he adds. The Building Industry Association contributed $1.3 million worth of labor and materials for a new $1.7 million, two-story clubhouse featuring executive offices and a computer-training room.
"Thanks to the great game of golf, these kids aren't on the street anymore," Wright says. "They are exposed to new challenges and opportunities. We teach them skills to take on the world. If it wasn't for this program, a lot of these kids wouldn't stand a chance. They'd be hanging around on the streets."
But lately Wright finds himself answering questions about campaign contributions made by himself and others associated with Pro Kids and whether the money is being used to buy influence with the city council, which controls the awarding of federal block-grant funds to local charities such as Pro Kids. Over the years, that convoluted, secrecy-cloaked block-grant awards procedure, critics say, has been corrupted by councilmembers' increasing use of the process to raise money for themselves.
Word of the Pro Kids–related contributions comes at an awkward time for the city council, which is considering adoption of a new 44-page conflict-of-interest law proposed by the city's Ethics Commission, created by the council largely in response to the Valerie Stallings–John Moores influence-buying scandal. The ordinance would ban solicitation of campaign funds from council appointees to city boards and commissions and bar former city employees, including councilmembers, from lobbying at city hall for a year after leaving city employment.
The law would also forbid a city official from using "his or her position or prospective position, or the power or authority of his or her office or position, in any manner intended to induce or coerce any person to provide, directly or indirectly, anything of value which shall accrue to the private advantage, benefit, or economic gain, of the City Official or his or her immediate family." The council has balked at those tough restrictions and had delayed further consideration of the ordinance until April 16. Meantime, their fundraising proceeds full speed ahead.
Since last March, according to city campaign-disclosure records, at least 16 individuals with links to Wright and Pro Kids have contributed a total of $8100 to help retire the 2000 campaign debt of city councilman Jim Madaffer. Most of the contributions came in on the same date, according to the disclosures: December 13, 2001.
The bulk of Madaffer's debt is owed to the councilman himself, and therefore, much of the money he collects has been going directly into his own pocket. A former legislative aide to ex-councilwoman Judy McCarty, Madaffer's campaign reports show he sunk more than $25,000 of his savings into his campaign effort and has been paying it back since the November 2000 election.
At the end of the most recent disclosure period, covering the six months through the close of 2001, Madaffer still owed himself about $13,000. During the same period, the Madaffer campaign paid the Primacy Group, a political consulting firm owned by Madaffer's consultant Larry Remer, $16,500. The Chase Company, owned by Madaffer fundraising consultant Nancy Chase, received $9750, and Aimee Faucett, a Madaffer campaign aide, got an $8000 "bonus." At the end of the year, the campaign still owed the Primacy Group $9914.
That Madaffer's campaign debt has been steadily shrinking is due in no small part to money that Wright freely boasts he has raised on behalf of the first-term Seventh District councilman. Those associated with Pro Kids who have given the maximum $500 contribution to retire Madaffer's debt included Wright himself, Margaret Wright, Ernest Wright II, and Victoria Wright. Former Charger Doug Wilkerson and his wife Deborah also gave $500, as did a raft of Pro Kids executives and directors and their spouses, including president Nicholas Krnich and vice president Donald Odom. Other donors included Deborah Keough, listed as the chief financial officer of Wright's EHW Management Corp., and Michel Anderson, identified by Wright as his lobbyist.
"Jim Madaffer, as you know, is the city councilman for the district that we're in, City Heights, and before that he was chief of staff for Judy McCarty, and Judy and Jim have been absolutely super supporters of our program there in City Heights," explains Wright. "We operate a city-owned golf course, and they have been very helpful in our applications for block-grant monies to improve that golf course and that facility for kids in that neighborhood.
"And we feel that, since they've supported us in what we were doing to help the kids in that community, that we should support Mr. Madaffer in his efforts to seek election. He had to run for office, and he has debts to pay off, and as with any elected official, if we can help, we help." As for the fact that most of the money is going directly to Madaffer personally, Wright says, "He had the courage of his convictions, so he put his own money down. He ought to be able to get it back if he wins."
Wright says he can't remember how he found out about Madaffer's post-election fundraising needs or his campaign debt. "Maybe I asked him. Maybe his assistant tapped me. Maybe my lobbyist told me about it. I can't recall. I'm always looking out to help my friends, though, so it probably was my idea to pitch in with a little extra."