Helen Copley's friendship with financier Richard Silberman in the late 1970s became an embarrassment.
  • Helen Copley's friendship with financier Richard Silberman in the late 1970s became an embarrassment.
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"Your wife has an ownership interest of approximately 11 percent in the Miracle Recreation Company, a Missouri company which designs, manufactures, and sells playground equipment. This interest is a separate property interest arising from your wife's interest in a separate property trust. The trust owns stock in a company called Playpower, Inc. Playpower is a holding company with several operating subsidiaries, one of which is Miracle Recreation.

Left to right, top to bottom: James and Helen Copley, Susan Golding and Richard Silberman, Scott Peters and Lynn Gorguze, Joan and Ray Kroc, Alan Bersin, Frances Hellman and Robert Dynes, Robert Peterson and Maureen O'Connor

"It is each official's responsibility to determine whether he or she has any interest, financial or not, which is 'incompatible with the proper discharge of official duties.' If an official determines that he or she cannot be objective about a decision because of a financial or personal interest, the official may choose to abstain from participating in discussions or discussions and votes on a particular project.

Golding began her political career after striking up a close friendship with political consultant George Gorton.

"You may wish to consider this policy in determining whether or not to participate in these Council decisions on funding projects, which could potentially use Miracle Recreation equipment, even though a determination has been made that there is no legal conflict of interest."

-- San Diego city attorney legal-opinion letter to city councilman Scott Peters, February 20, 2001

Golding went on to win her county-board seat, easily defeating a former Silberman protégée, Democratic lawyer Lynn Schenk.

Money and politics have long been married to each other in San Diego, where four of the city's most powerful women made their way to the top after marrying local captains of commerce and industry. Union-Tribune publisher Helen Copley, ex-mayors Maureen O'Connor and Susan Golding, and McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc all started their lives with humble means, only to find fortune and power in the arms of wealthy husbands.

The women married their money in the '70s and '80s. In the '90s, it was the men's turn. Three of the city's most prominent civic players, UCSD chancellor Robert Dynes, San Diego Unified School District superintendent Alan Bersin, and San Diego city councilman Scott Peters, are married to rich wives. Each spouse is probably worth millions of dollars, according to the personal financial disclosure statements the men are required to file.

Downtown-hotel magnate Douglas Manchester accused O'Connor of holding up the construction of the city's bay-front convention center

But having money has proved a mixed blessing for these San Diegans. Along their path to wealth and influence, two of the women, Copley and Golding, and one of the men, Dynes, reinvented part of themselves, sanitizing their biographies by erasing marriages, divorces, and the recriminations that followed. And the surnames of the children of Copley and Golding were later changed. For Bersin, Dynes, and Peters, spousal wealth has raised questions about conflicts between their official roles and the financial holdings of their wives.

When Helen Copley named son David publisher of the Union-Tribune this April, she had spent almost 28 years at the helm of the newspaper company.

Fifty years ago this spring, Copley was a secretary in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when, according to court documents, she became pregnant after a tryst with a fellow worker at a dairy company. At 29, she married the child's father, John Hunt, in one county, divorced him two weeks later in another, and, accompanied by her mother, headed west to San Diego, where she gave birth to a son on January 31, 1952. Years later, asked about the father of her child, Copley would say, "I never talk about him. I don't know where he is, and I don't want to know."

Lisa Foster was the daughter of Stanley E. Foster, who himself had married into San Diego's wealthy Ratner family almost 50 years earlier.

Not long after arriving in San Diego, Helen Hunt got a job at the San Diego Union and its sister paper, the Tribune, where she met publisher James S. Copley, who had inherited his newspaper empire from his adoptive father, Colonel Ira Copley, a one-time Illinois congressman. Smitten by the svelte brunette, Jim Copley made Helen his personal secretary. In August 1965, he divorced his wife and the mother of his two adopted children and married Helen. At the time of their marriage, Jim adopted Helen's 13-year-old son David Hunt, whose birth certificate was altered to eliminate any reference to the boy's birth father.

Father of the bride was Warren Hellman, a multi-millionaire investment banker and venture capitalist with close connections to the University of California.

Seven years later on his deathbed, the publisher drew up trust agreements leaving his wife complete control of his newspaper empire. After Jim died of lung cancer in 1973 at the age of 57, Helen, then 48, consolidated her hold on the company, allegedly locking out Jim's two children by his first marriage, and triggering a lawsuit charging that Helen had looted the children's trusts for the benefit of herself and her son David. After years of litigation, Helen agreed to settle the case in 1982 for a sizable, undisclosed sum.

By the time she named David publisher of the Union-Tribune this April, Helen Copley had spent almost 28 years at the helm of the newspaper company. She had provided political and editorial support to Pete Wilson as mayor, then United States senator, then governor, only to see him blamed for the decimation of the state's Republican Party because of his backing of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187.

Copley used her newspapers to stimulate the city's explosive growth, pushing for North City residential sprawl, convincing voters to approve encroachment of the Naval Hospital expansion into Balboa Park's Florida Canyon, advocating giving away city-owned land for industrial projects, and promoting the Chargers' ticket-guarantee. Few candidates for local office dared challenge the Union-Tribune's dominance, and when they did, they found themselves dispatched to political oblivion.

And yet, though her editorial defeats were few, Copley as publisher never seemed to find her personal bearings. She rarely spoke in public. Her friendship with financier Richard Silberman in the late 1970s became an embarrassment when a reporter at the Evening Tribune accused the paper of spiking a story about Silberman's conflicts of interest stemming from his ownership of the Bazaar del Mundo. When Silberman began dating a young Union reporter, his relationship with Copley cooled. She retreated to her mansion, known as Fox Hill, overlooking the fairways of the La Jolla Country Club, and was seldom again seen by anyone other than close friends.

A few years after his split with Copley, Silberman married Susan Golding on July 22, 1984. Golding arrived for the wedding at Temple Beth Israel in a red Jaguar; Silberman pulled up in a Lamborghini Spada. It was the city's money marriage of the decade. Everyone knew Silberman as the millionaire wonderboy who, along with fellow San Diego State grad Bob Peterson, made a fortune when they sold the Jack In The Box hamburger chain to Ralston Purina more than a decade earlier.

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