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— San Diego's District Three city councilwoman Toni Atkins, who's up for reelection this year, has been picking up some interesting campaign money from out-of-town contributors. Particularly noteworthy: a series of at least nine $100 checks booked by her campaign on the same date -- November 20 of last year -- from various employees of CH2M Hill, a big multinational civil engineering and construction-management firm based in Englewood, Colorado. According to its website and city records, the firm has done millions of dollars of business with the city, including work on the controversial North City Water Reclamation Plant. This isn't the first time Atkins has collected multiple donations from a group of out-of-towners associated with the same special interest. Back in August 2000, the then-council candidate was the beneficiary of a wine-and-cheese fundraising reception thrown in her honor by attorneys Lou Wolfsheimer and Jim Milch, then lobbyists for the California Cabaret Association, which represented San Diego's strip-club owners, including Mike Galardi of Cheetahs. At the Atkins fundraiser, the attorneys reportedly handed over envelopes stuffed with bundles of checks. Campaign-disclosure statements later revealed Atkins had picked up at least $3500 from various members of the strip-club industry, some of whom were only later identified as such. She was quizzed by federal agents last year but escaped indictment in the Cheetahs city-council bribery case. Under city law, campaign contributions are limited to individuals only; reimbursement by employers is illegal. Reached by phone this week, two of the CH2M employees who contributed to Atkins were not especially eager to talk. Kathy Freas of Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento, listed on the Atkins disclosure as "SW Water Technical Leader," denied she had been reimbursed for her contribution but refused to discuss her association with Atkins: "I don't care to continue this discussion." Margaret Ibison of Englewood, Colorado, listed as "SW Business Development Manager" for CH2M, also denied being reimbursed. Before hanging up, she added, "I am not going to answer any other questions."

Sorry, Mother Union-Tribune publisher David Copley, who works for his ailing mom Helen, owner of La Jolla's Copley Press, hasn't been seen around town too much these days. But he still manages to keep his hand in politics, if only in a low-profile way. Last fall, while U-T editors under his command were heatedly extolling the virtues of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the paper's readers, David quietly dashed off a $5000 check to the gubernatorial campaign of his old friend, reborn liberal Arianna Huffington, author and ex-wife of GOP ex-congressman Michael Huffington. Meantime, only weeks after the election, Qualcomm magnate Irwin Jacobs, a registered Democrat who had long been a big backer of ex-governor Gray Davis, gave $10,000 to Schwarzenegger on November 26 ... Also on the political money beat: San Diego's Cohn Restaurant Group, owned by David and Leslie Cohn, operators of such big-time local eateries as the Corvette Diner, Indigo Grill, and Gaslamp Strip Club, has anted up $10,000 to a campaign fund registered with the California Secretary of State as "Californians Against Government Run Healthcare." The group has been pushing a referendum to block the so-called Burton bill, signed last year by Governor Gray Davis, requiring employers with 20 or more employees to pay for their health insurance.

Your tax dollars at play More evidence of prudent high living by San Diego's regional airport authority board: An $88 dinner tab run up by ex-Air Force colonel Joe Craver last March at La Colline, a tony French restaurant in Washington, D.C. Not to worry. According to this month's Washingtonian magazine, the restaurant offers "Fair prices, a nice mix of French and American wines, but poor presentation. Don't miss: Domaine Cros Vielles Vignes Minervois 1999, $36." Last month, a review in The Hill reported, "One of only a handful of Capitol Hill restaurants that take wine seriously, this French favorite offers a wide variety of (surprise) French wines at very fair prices, especially for a destination of lawmakers and lobbyists." And the New York Times noted that the restaurant has gotten so famous as a lobbying hangout, it was the scene of a recent episode of K Street on HBO produced by George Clooney.

Science project Yet another mini-crisis for San Diego schools: according to an internal memo from outgoing chief of staff Terry Smith to trustees a few weeks ago, the National Science Foundation is in the process of running an audit on two troubled multimillion-dollar grants it gave to the district back in 1996 and 2001. "On December 18, the auditors confirmed that they intend to prepare their report with a significant amount of 'questioned costs,' " the memo says, "arising primarily from a lack of documentation." This isn't the first time the district has been in a scrape with the NSF. Back in 1999, the agency yanked about $8.5 million in funding because of a dispute over teaching methods.

-- Matt Potter

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