It was the biggest mystery of the most controversial and expensive schoolboard election in San Diego history. Why would two obscure East Coast liberal foundations unite with some of the most conservative and wealthiest of San Diego business interests in a secretive attempt to defeat incumbent board member Frances O'Neill Zimmerman? By the time the campaign was over in November 2000, the two foundations — along with the likes of Padres owner John Moores, Wal-Mart heir John Walton, downtown real estate mogul Malin Burnham, and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs — poured $720,000 into a slashing campaign of television spots, attacking Zimmerman and her opposition to the policies of San Diego Unified School District superintendent Alan Bersin. Despite — and some believe because of — the heavy onslaught, Zimmerman narrowly held off her pro-Bersin foe, downtown real estate lawyer Julie Dubick, and remained on the board. But questions about the two foundations, which consistently refused to explain why each had helped fund the campaign, would not go away. The money from the individuals and the foundations was funneled into the race through a nonprofit corporation called the Partnership for Student Achievement (a front organization with no official board of directors), set up in the Encinitas offices of F. Laurence Scott, Jr. a certified public accountant known for managing the campaign bookkeeping of Republican stalwart Pete Wilson. Moores, Walton, and Jacobs each gave $100,000. Burnham gave $50,000, as did Harvey White, the chief executive officer of Leap Wireless, a Qualcomm spin-off whose stock, now worth only pennies a share, was flying high on Wall Street. Manpower of San Diego, a temporary-help firm owned by Phil Blair and Mel Katz, two mainstays of San Diego's chamber of commerce, gave $100,000.
The slickly produced commercials opened with a color shot of smiling students walking down a hallway, over which was superimposed an unflattering, black-and-white still photograph of a frowning Zimmerman. A menacing male baritone voice intoned "School board member Fran Zimmerman is leading the fight against San Diego's back-to-basics reform plan." After listing a series of anti-Bersin board votes that Zimmerman allegedly had made, the voice concluded, "Tell Fran Zimmerman to stop voting against back-to-basics school reform. Because it's working."
It made sense that the chamber of commerce had come out against Zimmerman. She was leading the charge against selling off the district's real estate for commercial development and was raising bothersome questions about the district's purchasing policies. Then, during the campaign, it had emerged that Dubick worked for a law firm that was lobbying hard for sweetheart district property deals, and local real estate interests were pouring money into the Dubick campaign. Moores and his associates clearly wanted a more "business-friendly" school district.
But the two Eastern foundations, which between them gave a total of $157,000, seemed an unlikely source of funds. Essential Information, Inc., of Washington, D.C., gave $100,000. Public Interest Projects of New York City gave $57,000. Founded in 1982, Essential Information was run by Russell Mokhiber, a then-46-year-old veteran of the left-wing turbulence of the 1960s and '70s who had made a career of bashing America's corporate culture. The foundation website announced that Mokhiber, who grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, the child of working-class parents, and who later went to work for Ralph Nader, was "one of the nation's leading authorities on corporate crime, is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, a legal weekly, and the author of Corporate Crime and Violence: Big Business Power and the Abuse of the Public Trust."
"Corporations are the only criminal class that has so marinated the lawmaking process with their money that they both define the law and influence enforcement of the law," Mokhiber told Florida's St. Petersburg Times in 1997. In 1999 he told the New York Times that "Corporate crime is crime without shame. It's gotten to the point where when a corporation pleads guilty to some criminal act, the stock goes up." Essential Information publishes a monthly magazine called the Multinational Monitor, which features articles with headlines such as "Corporate Pigs and Other Tales of Agribusiness," "Big Business Looks to Sew Up the Chinese Market," and "The World Bank: Fifty Years Is Enough!"
So what was Mokhiber doing in the company of corporate titans such as John Moores, Harvey White, Irwin Jacobs, and John Walton? And why did the anti-corporate activist care about San Diego's school board? Contacted by telephone in October 2000, Mokhiber said he was not familiar with the donation his foundation had made to the San Diego race and promised a reporter he'd investigate and call back. He never did and failed to respond to numerous follow-up calls. Charitable tax returns filed in 1999 with the Internal Revenue Service showed that Essential Information had the previous year raised $672,000 from a variety of contributors and had net assets of $166,000.
The second foundation, Public Interest Projects, was even more elusive. Its president, Donald Ross, is a wealthy, well-connected Democratic lobbyist and longtime liberal activist in New York and Washington who had founded the Ralph Nader-sponsored New York Public Interest Research Group in 1973. He and his partner, attorney Arthur Malkin, lobbied for the New York state trial attorneys' organization, which often pitted them against the state's business community. Ross failed to return numerous phone calls from a reporter attempting to find out why the foundation he ran had given to the anti-Zimmerman cause.
Pam Maurath, who identified herself as an employee of Public Interest Projects, confirmed that the foundation had contributed the money to the Partnership for Student Achievement but said she was "not aware" of its negative television advertising campaign. "This was something we felt was of consumer interest," she said. Maurath added she didn't know how the foundation was approached for the money but said the foundation's grants were not advertised to the public. "There would have to be some personal connection, oh, sure," she said. "We don't have a regular process by which we award grants. There would have to be some personal connection. You would definitely have to know somebody."