— Critics of all that development activity over at SeaWorld, the burgeoning amusement park on Mission Bay, have long bemoaned the cozy financial connections between owner Anheuser-Busch and many of San Diego's elected officials. Last week, city councilwoman Donna Frye called a news conference to announce a $500,000 study of 1950s-era toxic chemicals believed buried at an old landfill under Mission Bay. The study comes long after local politicos -- followed by voters -- gave their stamp of approval to a new round of high-rise thrill rides at the marine park. Veteran Mission Bay watcher Scott Andrews says he's "concerned about a possible cover-up" by the study, his suspicions fueled in part by the thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that have flowed from Busch to the councilmembers. And state lobbying records show those funds aren't the only consideration the brewing giant has extended to officials here; Busch has been handing out thousands of dollars of free SeaWorld admissions to the members of the legislature and their staffs. Last July, for instance, Democratic assemblyman Juan Vargas got $179 worth of free tickets to the park. That same month, Jim Davitt, listed as an assembly "Sargent," got the same. Tammy Petsalis, a "senior assistant" to speaker Fabian Nuñez, was the beneficiary of a $161 admission gift. The first week of August, Nora Lynn, a "consultant" to Democratic senator Dede Alpert, got $224 worth of tickets. If a trip to see SeaWorld's killer whale Shamu didn't do the trick for the legislative employees, Busch picked up the tab at more adult watering holes. Dan Eaton, chief of staff to speaker Nuñez, got $150 worth of golf at the Granite Bay Golf Club. And in September, Matthew Botting, chief legal counsel to the state's Alcoholic Beverage Commission -- which regulates all bars and liquor sales in California, a topic clearly dear to booze-maker A-B's heart -- was given a $159 dinner at the ritzy Top of the Tram restaurant in the mountains high above Palm Springs. Assemblyman Tony Strickland got a $25 lunch at the Esquire Grill in Sacramento.

Electricity and juice The folks at Anheuser-Busch weren't alone in treating the assembly to a good time. San Diego's own Sempra Energy, parent company to San Diego Gas & Electric, spent more than $28,428 on so-called lobbying-activity expenses in the first three months of this year alone; $6400 of that was devoted on March 8 to paying for "food and beverage" for local Democrats Vargas and Christine Kehoe, along with 35 fellow assembly members from across the state, at the Hyatt Regency Islandia on Mission Bay. Sempra and the state's other electrical utilities have been lobbying hard against any new regulation intended to rein in prices for consumers. Besides the Islandia gathering, professional sports played a major role in Sempra's influence strategy, the filings show. In January, Bob Biddle, chief of staff to Orange County Republican Tom Harmon, got two tickets to a Lakers game in L.A. along with food and beverage worth a total of $189. In March, Janet Nguyen, district director for Costa Mesa Republican Ken Maddox, got "concert tickets, food and beverage" for an event at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim valued at $120.73. Chris Leo, chief of staff for Garden Grove Democrat Lou Correa, and Mark Vargas, chief of staff (according to the filing) for Democratic state controller Steve Westly, each got $88.25 in admission, food, and drink for a Mighty Ducks hockey game. Meanwhile, back in San Diego, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce was also busy handing out sports-related freebies to worthy legislative staffers. In January, Jimmy Jackson (chief of staff to Senator Alpert), Colin Rice (a longtime aide to Juan Vargas who was listed on the chamber's disclosure as "Senator Ducheny's Field Representative"), and Cameron Durckel (Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's "District Director") each partook of $49.91 in food and beverage provided to the chamber by sports-event caterer Centerplate.

Cheetahs and politics Three city councilmembers, all Democrats, have been excluded from a list of the official "San Diego Friends of Barbara Boxer" U.S. Senate reelection campaign committee. Ralph Inzunza, Charles Lewis, and Michael Zucchet are all awaiting trial on charges of illegally trafficking with Cheetahs strip-emporium owner Mike Galardi, who has pled guilty to buying their influence for his failed scheme to allow touchy-feely nude dancing at the club. Apparently Democrat Boxer wants nothing at all to do with the Cheetahs three, even though the law presumes them innocent prior to conviction. Those local Democrats who made Boxer's cut include unindicted San Diego city councilmembers Toni Atkins, Donna Frye, and Scott Peters, as well as Chula Vista mayor Steve Padilla, La Mesa mayor Art Madrid, Imperial Beach mayor Diane Rose, and San Diego board of education member Ed Lopez. Luis Natividad, a staffer for the indicted Lewis, was also listed as a member of the group. In his spare time Natividad is on the city council in National City and has not been implicated in the probe of his boss.

-- Matt Potter

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