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— When word broke two weeks ago that a group of local fat cats was paying for more than half a million dollars' worth of TV ads against San Diego Unified School District boardmember Frances O'Neill Zimmerman, the business lobby quickly went into damage control. Tyler Cramer, a lawyer and chamber of commerce functionary, declared that the anti-Zimmerman donors -- including Padres owner and high-tech venture capitalist John Moores ($100,000), Wal-Mart heir John T. Walton ($100,000), Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs ($100,000), and downtown real estate mogul Malin Burnham ($50,000) -- were simply worried that Zimmerman was bad for business.

Cramer denied reports that the wealthy anti-Zimmerman forces were working to assure the election of Zimmerman's opponent, lawyer Julie Dubick, in order to obtain a crucial fourth board vote to sell off a trove of district-owned real estate to the city's business insiders. The local capitalists, Cramer insisted, had a nobler goal in mind.

"The business community, and everyone whose job depends on a business, needs first a constantly replenished pool of employees who can competently read, write, compute, think, and communicate in English and preferably in at least one other language," Cramer wrote in a letter to the Union-Tribune. "It needs school systems that current and prospective employees deem acceptable for the education of their children." By opposing the so-called "Blueprint for Education" backed by Superintendent Alan Bersin, Cramer and others maintained, Zimmerman was blocking educational progress.

But what of the other reported donors, Public Interest Project, Inc., and Essential Information, Inc., two obscure East Coast nonprofit foundations? On the surface, at least, the two foundations are anti-business and odd bedfellows of Moores, Jacobs, Walton, and Burnham. But who is really behind the foundations' donations? So far, neither foundation is saying.

According to John Johnson, San Diego Urban League president and titular head of the anti-Zimmerman drive, Public Interest Project has so far contributed $60,000 and Essential Information has given $110,000 -- in all about a third of the TV ad budget to date. One group, according to its website, has a self-avowed anti-corporate agenda. The other supports liberal environmental and public-health causes. Both are run by critics of big business; neither has previously expressed an interest in education issues.

Essential Information, founded in 1982 by Ralph Nader, works against the World Trade Organization and makes a specialty of loathing multinational corporations. Public Interest Project funds environmental education in Taos, New Mexico; a midwifery support group in New York; and anti-pesticide lobbying efforts. Before now, neither has dealt with issues of education reform, nor has either ever before had anything to do with San Diego and its peculiar brand of big-money politics.

According to its tax return for 1998, the latest available, Public Interest Project, Inc., took in more than $919,000 in "gifts, grants, and contributions" in 1998 and had total assets of over a million dollars. The statement did not list the foundation's source of income. Among reported expenditures were $151,000 for "consultants," $14,000 for "focus groups," and $146,000 in "project expenses."

A statement in the tax return says the group "was organized to undertake numerous studies, campaigns, and initiatives on consumer, environmental, public health, urban policy, and other issues."

Current projects, the statement goes on to say, "include a national coalition on midwifery; Trust for America Health, a project designed to coordinate the efforts between the environmental and public health sectors; a campaign to preserve the wilderness areas in the Adirondacks; New Yorkers for Accessible Health Coverage, an effort to improve the availability of health care to disadvantaged New Yorkers; and the Wilderness Support Center, a start-up effort to assist with coalition building efforts among local and state wilderness preservation groups in the Rocky Mountain region."

The statement adds that Public Interest Project "also provides foundation management services for three small family foundations. The program areas for all three foundations focus primarily on the government, with one foundation having a small grant program in the area of population. Grants awarded by each of these foundations have had a significant impact on preserving the environment, an issue that has been at the force of the public interest for the past two decades."

The president of Public Interest Project is Donald Ross, a well-connected lawyer, lobbyist, and longtime liberal activist in New York and Washington. A biography on the website of his Washington, D.C.-based law firm, Mehri, Malkin, and Ross, says he was born in the Bronx in 1947, graduated Fordham University in 1965, and got a law degree from New York University in 1970. A founder of the Nader-sponsored New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in 1973, Ross was also chief executive officer of the Rockefeller Family Fund from 1985 until 1998.

Ross and his partner, attorney Arthur Malkin, also run the lobbying firm of Malkin & Ross, based in the New York state capital of Albany. Chief among their clients is the New York Trial Lawyers Association. A June 1997 critique in Crain's New York Business alleged that Ross has used his ties with the New York Public Interest Research Group, funded by student fees from public universities in New York, to help the trial lawyers argue against a tort-reform bill in the legislature.

"NYPIRG's founder, Donald Ross, and its former chief lobbyist, Arthur Malkin, are now the lobbyists for the state trial lawyers organization. Last year, their firm, Malkin & Ross, collected $100,000 from the association to represent it in Albany," according to the article. "They have used that clout to create one of the most hostile civil-justice systems in the country for businesses and municipalities. New York's difficult tort environment costs companies and public entities such as New York City hundreds of millions of dollars a year while enriching the trial bar."

Other Malkin & Ross clients, according to an April 1997 profile of the firm in Albany's Capital District Business Review, include the National Abortion Rights and Reproductive Action League, the Lesbian & Gay Community Service Center, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, and the Mental Health Association of New York.

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