In October 2003, after seven years as chancellor at UCSD, Robert Dynes became president of the University of California. To pay tribute, a self-described "old friend" rose from his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. "I have personally observed Bob's term as chancellor and seen the determined focus of his administration to uphold the integrity of this fine university," said Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
"Bob set high standards for himself and his administration as well as innovative ways to meet them. This is truly the sign of someone who is a special leader. I am not just saying this because I am his friend; others see this quality in him as well."
Two years later, as Cunningham was pleading guilty to bribery after selling congressional favors to the highest bidder, Dynes was facing his own problems. Headlines questioned undisclosed bonuses paid to UC's top administrators. State senators would soon question Dynes's leadership ability. In an era of state budget shortfalls, the University of California was in transition. Venture-capital financiers were taking over much of the university's research agenda, and administrators' bonuses, according to one state senator, reflected "corporatization." Dynes was well connected, with a wealthy wife and father-in-law who was closely tied to California's financial establishment. Collaboration with industry was Dynes's vision for the university's future.
Randy "Duke" Cunningham was not alone in his fondness for Dynes. The San Diego establishment loved Dynes when he was UCSD chancellor. He had cozy relationships with Qualcomm's Irwin Jacobs and with Padres owner John Moores. The Union-Tribune was enthusiastic about Dynes and the direction UCSD was taking. "Dynes, a physicist by training, keenly understands that close cooperation between academia and high-tech entrepreneurs is the surest way to accelerate the new economy," effused a December 2000 editorial.
When it was announced that Dynes would become president of the entire ten-campus university system, the U-T was even more effusive. In an editorial headlined "UC makes a splendid choice for chancellor," the paper said, "Dynes spent 22 years at AT&T Bell Laboratories before joining UCSD. His considerable experience in the private sector gives him a healthy appreciation for the bottom line."
Wrote Neil Morgan, "Outspoken and courageous, Dynes will be a scrappy president of the University of California, putting his job on the line every day. Even under the pressure of taking on a sprawling public giant and overseeing a budget of $15 billion, his idealism explodes in every conversation."
The paper played up Dynes's purported humble beginnings. "A first-generation college graduate of Canadian descent, he has risen to the top of his profession by dint of hard work and determination. During his proactive chancellorship, UCSD has flourished."
But Dynes was not a self-made man. After leaving a messy first marriage in New Jersey, he had wed an heiress to one of California's wealthiest and most powerful dynasties, dating from San Francisco's Gold Rush days.
Frances Hellman, a Dartmouth College graduate, had worked for Dynes at AT&T Bell Labs. In 1987 she left to become an assistant physics professor at UCSD, and in 1991 Dynes followed her to the university. Three years later, Dynes rose to chair the physics department, the next year he was appointed senior vice chancellor of academic affairs, and the following year, in May 1996, Dynes was named UCSD's chancellor, succeeding Richard Atkinson, who had been elevated to UC president.
Two months later, in July 1996, Dynes filed for divorce from his first wife, Christel. They had been married almost 30 years. In January 1997, Christel filed an emotional counter-complaint against her husband. It revealed that the couple had been living apart for the prior 6 years. "On or about January 1, 1991, ever since which time and for more than 12 months last past, [Robert Dynes] has willfully and continuously deserted [Christel Dynes]."
The case was settled a year later, in January 1998. Dynes agreed to pay monthly alimony of $6000 and turn over the couple's house in Summit, New Jersey. She kept the 1997 Ford Explorer and a 1984 Honda Prelude; he got the 1997 Mercedes-Benz and a 1987 Mazda. It was mostly small-stakes stuff. Clearly Dynes had not become wealthy working at AT&T Bell Labs.
Five months after the divorce became final, he took a new bride. "Dynes and physicist Frances Hellman will wed in May," wrote U-T columnist Neil Morgan. "The daughter of a San Francisco financier, she's become a hard-line Padres fan."
But Frances Hellman, then 43, was far more than a baseball lover. She was F. Warren Hellman's daughter, and in California's big-time social and political circles, that was saying something.
Warren Hellman, 65, is the great-grandson of a founder of Wells Fargo Bank, an heir to the Levi Strauss denim clothing fortune, and one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in the state. Among his many wealthy associates is San Diego Padres owner John Moores, with whom he has invested in some of the high-tech start-ups clustered around UCSD.
A graduate of UC Berkeley, Hellman has long been a major player in the secretive internal politics of the University of California. He is famous for making multimillion-dollar charitable contributions to his alma mater. He has been a frequent contributor to the campaigns of politicians like Assembly Speaker, later San Francisco mayor, Willie Brown and Governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis.
Hellman has also stage-managed some of the university's most controversial moves, such as the 1997 merger of medical facilities at UCSF and Stanford, which critics said squandered tax dollars and reduced health-care choices for the poor. Hellman, through his San Francisco firm Hellman & Friedman, manages billions of dollars for a host of investors, including the massive California Public Employees' Retirement System -- CalPERS for short. In that role Hellman weathered charges that campaign contributions he and other family members made to state officeholders were intended to induce the CalPERS board to steer additional investment business to Hellman's firm.
Thus, when Dynes married Frances Hellman, university insiders couldn't be blamed for assuming that Dynes's power was due to the behind-the-scenes influence of his father-in-law, Warren Hellman, though the mainstream media never picked up on the connection and Dynes himself did his best to obscure it. His 1999 statement of economic interests, required under state law, contained no reference at all to Frances Hellman's holdings.