Anchor ads are not supported on this page.

4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Out-of-towners Eli Broad and Donald Ross meddle in San Diego school-board politics

Mitz Lee, Sheila Jackson win

History was repeating itself. What happened in 2002, and before that, in 2000, was happening again. Big bucks began to show up in San Diego. Much of this money came from wealthy out-of-towners. Where this money went was to the campaigns of three San Diego Unified school-board candidates. The money arrived in five- and six-figure contributions to campaign committees with names like that of the Marin County-based "Independent Committee to Support Local Schools" and the "San Diego Lincoln Club." These committees had no apparent ties to the candidates. Many mailings and radio ads didn't even mention the candidates. Instead, they attacked their opponents. "Our Children Can't Afford Mitz Lee on Our School Board!" read a piece sent by the "Independent Committee to Support Local Schools." "Mitz Lee says she wants to buy out the Superintendent's contract early -- at a cost of nearly $400,000! That's a lot of money to pay a person not to work! The last thing our school board needs is Mitz Lee and her financial mismanagement." Spots featuring Republican district attorney Bonnie Dumanis aired on the radio, courtesy of the GOP's Lincoln Club, praising Lee's opponent, chamber of commerce favorite Miyo Ellen Reff. Reff also was backed by the AFL-CIO's San Diego labor council, which is often allied with the chamber on growth, construction, and possible development of vacant school property. The labor council spent $26,000 on Reff's behalf.

It was much the same for two other board candidates endorsed by the chamber: Ben Hueso, a city redevelopment manager and longtime friend and associate of San Diego city councilman Ralph Inzunza, and Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, a member of the city's Southeastern San Diego Development Corp. She was defeated by former schoolteacher and Navy medic, Shelia Jackson, who did not enjoy establishment support and was vastly outspent.

Hueso, who was endorsed by the three-member school-board majority that favored Bersin, benefited from at least $35,650 in mailings paid for by the Independent Committee for School Reform, according to official disclosure filings. Much of that expenditure was funded by a $35,000 loan to the committee from Mel Katz, a temporary-employment firm owner with close ties to outgoing board member Ron Ottinger. Hueso also received at least $10,000 in support from the AFL-CIO's San Diego Labor Council.

Hueso's opponent, Luis Acle, a conservative Republican and former official in the Reagan administration, also received support from the Lincoln Club, but the $2800 that the group spent in mailers on his behalf was small compared to the $131,000 total the club lavished on behalf of its favorites, Reff and Whitehurst-Payne. Thirty thousand dollars of that came from a last-minute contribution by billionaire John Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune and a charter-school advocate who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The Independent Committee for Local Schools is a "paper" committee run out of the Mill Valley offices of Vigo "Chip" Nielsen, a lawyer who specializes in setting up and servicing campaign-finance committees for Republican causes. San Diego's Lincoln Club, a group of wealthy Republicans, has evolved into a cash conduit for donors who want to shield their identity from the public. The so-called independent expenditures of the political committees also allow big-money donors to avoid the district's $500-per-person limit on contributions to school-board races.

For her part, Whitehurst-Payne got at least $118,000 in support of her campaign from the San Diego Education Association, the teachers' union, which endorsed her candidacy. She also had the advantage of at least $32,000 in radio commercials purchased by the Lincoln Club.

Who else was putting up the big bucks, and what were their motives? As mail hit doorsteps in early November, campaign disclosure statements revealed a familiar story with a cast known to those who have followed the six-year saga of Alan Bersin and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce's attempts to take over the school board.

At the top of the list is Eli Broad, a Los Angeles billionaire who made his fortune building houses and in the insurance business. According to campaign filings, on October 25, Broad contributed $45,000 to the Independent Committee to Support Local Schools; the contribution was earmarked to defeat Mitz Lee. Broad's close friend and political ally, Richard Riordan, the ex-Los Angeles mayor who now serves as education secretary to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, gave $5000.

A champion of public school "reform," Democrat Broad, a longtime Bersin ally, has a history of hiding his financial support of the superintendent's efforts to retool the school district.

Broad's involvement in San Diego school politics dates back to summer and fall 2000, when Padres owner John Moores (along with Moores's partner, downtown real estate mogul Malin Burnham) and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs spent more than $720,000 on a campaign of television spots attacking Democratic board incumbent Frances Zimmerman and her opposition to Bersin's policies.

The commercials opened with a shot of students walking down a hallway. A photograph of a frowning Zimmerman was superimposed on the image while a male baritone voice intoned, "School board member Fran Zimmerman is leading the fight against San Diego's back-to-basics reform plan." After listing a series of Zimmerman's anti-Bersin votes, the voice concluded, "Tell Fran Zimmerman to stop voting against back-to-basics school reform. Because it's working."

To avoid identifying itself in the ads, the Moores group used a federal "527" political committee that called itself "the Partnership for Student Achievement," formed as a conduit for the funds. The only way to discover who paid for the campaign was to obtain the 527 filings from the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C.

Broad's efforts to avoid identification with the campaign went further. Records reveal his plan to escape detection involved two foundations from the East Coast, which gave a total of $157,000 to the anti-Zimmerman effort: $100,000 from Essential Information, Inc., of Washington, D.C., and $57,000 from Public Interest Projects of New York.

The two tax-exempt organizations seemed unlikely sources of such money. Founded in 1982, Essential Information was run by Russell Mokhiber, a then-46-year-old veteran of '60s and '70s left-wing politics who'd made a career of bashing America's corporate culture.

The foundation's website said that Mokhiber -- who grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, the child of working-class parents, and later worked for Ralph Nader -- was "one of the nation's leading authorities on corporate crime, is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, a legal weekly, and the author of Corporate Crime and Violence: Big Business Power and the Abuse of the Public Trust."

Sponsored
Sponsored

"Corporations are the only criminal class that has so marinated the law-making process with their money that they both define the law and influence enforcement of the law," Mokhiber told Florida's St. Petersburg Times in 1997. In 1999 he told the New York Times, "Corporate crime is crime without shame. It's gotten to the point where when a corporation pleads guilty to some criminal act, the stock goes up." Based on his biography, Mokhiber seemed an unlikely partner for capitalists Moores and Burnham.

The second foundation, Public Interest Projects, was more elusive. Its president, Donald Ross, is a Democratic lobbyist and longtime liberal activist in New York and Washington who founded the Ralph Nader-sponsored New York Public Interest Research Group in 1973. He and his partner, attorney Arthur Malkin, lobbied for the New York state trial attorneys' organization, which often pitted them against the state's business community.

Like Essential Information, Inc., Public Interest Projects had no history of contributing to education issues. No one from either foundation would respond to queries from a reporter as to why they gave sizable donations to a campaign against a San Diego school-board member.

More than two years later, after the foundations filed 2000 tax returns, it became clear that Eli Broad had used his own nonprofit, tax-exempt foundation to funnel his contributions to the two eastern charities that had given the money to the anti-Zimmerman advertising campaign.

A May 2001 tax return showed that in 2000, the Broad Foundation contributed $110,000 to Essential Information, according to a letter signed by Broad himself. "I am pleased to inform you that the Broad Foundation has approved your recent grant request to support Essential Information's efforts to encourage citizens to become active in public education issues in their communities.

"We are impressed with your prior work in disseminating education and other urban economic development information through conferences, journal articles, books, and reports. We are pleased to be able to support you as you continue this important work."

In a similar letter to Public Interest Projects, Broad wrote that his foundation had approved a $60,000 grant to support Public Interest Projects' "efforts to increase citizen awareness of the need for urban school reform."

"We are impressed with the mission of your organization and with your prior work in educating and informing the general public about community, health, and education issues. We are pleased to be able to support you as you continue this important work."

Within weeks after receiving the Broad Foundation money, both Essential Information and Public Interest Projects made their respective contributions to the Partnership for Student Achievement, which in turn spent the money to produce and air the anti-Zimmerman spots.

In the end, the Partnership's campaign backfired when a San Diego television station discovered the identity of Moores and the others who bankrolled the commercials. Broad escaped notice, thanks to his foundation-laundering ploy. The report also received newspaper coverage. With backing from the teachers' union, Zimmerman rode the backlash and was reelected.

But two years later, as Bersin sought again to bolster his board majority, Broad was back. Jeff Lee, a parent activist and a Zimmerman ally, faced off against Katherine Nakamura, the wife of an architect who specialized in school construction. Lee was endorsed by the San Diego Education Association, the teachers' union. Nakamura, who supported Bersin, was the chamber's choice.

The race between Lee and Nakamura to replace departing board member Sue Braun (another Bersin backer) was becoming a reprise of Zimmerman's reelection battle two years earlier against challenger Julie Dubick. But then, in August 2002, the Union-Tribune reported that it had "anonymously" obtained confidential military personnel records showing that Lee, a former Navy commander, had allegedly "abused subordinates" and been a "hostile leader."

Lee partisans suspected the material came from Pentagon sources related to retired high-ranking Navy and Marine officers whom Bersin had surrounded himself with as district bureaucrats. Bersin and the ex-brass denied any role, but the hit did its job.

Lee and his backers accused the U-T -- in particular Sunday "Opinion" writer Robert Caldwell, who wrote a 6700-word op-ed piece attacking Lee and boosting Bersin -- of distorting his service record for political gain. But the damage was done. Using clips from the newspaper, Broad poured $65,000 into hit pieces against Lee and incumbent John de Beck, who was running for reelection.

"I made an independent expenditure because I want to see the dramatic improvements in student achievement continue in San Diego," Broad said in a statement released by his office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Nakamura narrowly beat Lee.

Fast forward two years to the spring of 2004. Jeff Lee was now pursuing a career as a professional chef, having enrolled in Grossmont College's culinary arts program. He passed the baton to his wife, Mitz, a native of the Philippines who many in the city's downtown establishment, including the Lincoln Club and the chamber of commerce, derided because she spoke with an accent.

This time, the teachers' union withheld its endorsement from both candidates, saying it could "work positively with either Mitz Lee or Miyo Reff." Reff, an ex-PTA president and former biotech worker, had wrapped up the chamber of commerce's endorsement, along with the backing of the AFL-CIO's San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

The teachers' union had never been a fan of the Lees, fearing that the couple, both Republicans, would prove too independent and unpredictable when it came time to negotiate a new labor contract with the district. Although the union endorsed him in 2002, Jeff Lee wasn't the first choice. In the 2002 primary, the union backed Johnnie Perkins, a trash-company lobbyist with ties to his former boss, ex-San Diego city councilman Byron Wear, and Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary-treasurer of the labor council. Only after Perkins was defeated did the teachers' union throw its support to Jeff Lee.

Though the teachers' union remained neutral in the 2004 Mitz Lee race, Butkiewicz's labor council joined the chamber of commerce and the Lincoln Club in backing Republican Reff. "Our members really care a lot about education," he told reporters, who asked why the labor council had dumped more than $26,000 into independent expenditures on Reff's primary and general election campaigns. "Most of our members don't make enough to send their kids to private schools."

Others noted that Butkiewicz had long ago formed a close alliance with the downtown business establishment and the San Diego chamber of commerce, on whose board he sits. He and chamber executive director Jesse Knight were lobbying to get San Diego city taxpayers to subsidize a new football stadium for Chargers owner and Republican billionaire Alex Spanos of Stockton. He also backed John Moores in his quest for the Padres' downtown baseball stadium, the convention center expansion, along with hundreds of millions of dollars of other public-works projects.

In turn, the chamber agreed not to get in the way of unionized contracts and so-called "living" wages for public construction, both dear to the labor council but expensive for taxpayers. With the San Diego Unified School District mulling another multimillion-dollar bond issue to continue its rebuilding program, a board majority could be called on by labor and the chamber to hand out contracts for owners and construction workers.

The chamber and labor shared another agenda, their critics charged: liquidation of the school district's "surplus" real estate. Early in his tenure, Bersin had set up a real estate advisory committee, run by his father-in-law Stanley Foster, who had made a fortune in San Diego real estate by investing his wife's family money in South Bay property deals.

In a 1991 interview with Dirk Sutro of San Diego Executive Magazine, Foster, then 64, was quoted as saying he bought his first Chula Vista real estate, a 17-acre tomato field, in 1962, when he was 35, and turned it into an industrial park, earning a tidy return.

Foster was quoted as saying that he owned 17 industrial properties, with a total of one or two million square feet, "mostly in South Bay," many of which were leased to an assortment of border-related businesses, such as freight forwarders and maquiladora-support operations.

After his marriage to Foster's daughter Lisa, Bersin became an investor in the family real estate business. On January 24, 1992, according to county records, Stanley Foster, his wife Pauline, and Bersin and his wife, as well as a family-owned general partnership known as Marliskar, were listed on a fictitious business-name statement for an entity called Otay Terminal.

Four years later, in a document recorded on October 2, 1996, the Fosters and the Bersins were listed, along with Marliskar, as general partners in a statement of partnership for Otay Terminal. County real estate records showed that the market value of the four industrial parcels owned by the partnership, purchased between 1992 and 1998, including one directly across from the border, exceeded $12 million.

At the time, Bersin was serving as United States attorney here, having been appointed to the post by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Then-attorney general Janet Reno subsequently named Bersin to the dual position of "Border Czar," with the responsibility for stemming illegal immigration and drug trafficking along the Mexican border from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico.

In a September 1998 interview, Bersin described his family's real estate holdings. "It's a partnership in which my wife and I have an interest. I don't know when we made it, but it's something my father-in-law organized. It's a truck -- Consolidated Freight -- transfer point."

The Otay border acreage was the initial property purchased by the partnership, he added. "That's why it's called the Otay partnership.... And then there were other investments made in other properties. Kearny Mesa is one -- actually two in Kearny Mesa. I guess there's one in Vista. My wife and I invested in the partnership in cash, that's what the investment was." Bersin pointed out that the Otay Mesa purchase was made by Stanley Foster in 1992, "before I was U.S. Attorney."

While serving as U.S. attorney, Bersin became an outspoken proponent of the so-called Gateway of the Americas, a commercial shopping development near the Tijuana border crossing being assembled by Sam Marasco, a developer whose partner had once been Ron Hahn, son of Ernie Hahn, the Horton Plaza and Fashion Valley developer.

Bersin explained in the September 1998 interview that he had backed the project because he believed it would benefit the entire San Diego region. "Tijuana and San Diego and Customs and INS and GSA are all trying to develop the San Ysidro gateway between Tijuana and San Diego so that it reflects the kind of region that we're developing and lets the region, San Diego and Tijuana, take charge of their destiny because if we wait for federal governments to do it, we will never get the kind of port of entry that we need to build this U.S.-Mexico border region."

Bersin took over as city schools superintendent in March 1998. The ratification by the school board of his four-year contract and starting salary of $165,000 was unanimous, although boardmember Zimmerman abstained on the vote approving Bersin's appointment, saying that the selection process had been too swift and secretive.

''I am deeply troubled by the narrow, hurried, pressured, and secretive process that the board experienced in making its final decision,'' Zimmerman told a reporter for the Union-Tribune. "For me, an informed and thoughtful judgment on this most crucial matter was made impossible under such circumstances.''

Other critics included Latino lawyers, who criticized his get-tough immigration policies as U.S. attorney. "Frankly, we're astonished that a fellow lawyer with no proven interest in education could be named to head the second-largest school district in California," Esther Sanchez, president of the La Raza Lawyers, said in a written statement to reporters. "It appears to have been a result-oriented selection process in which politics, not qualifications, played a major role."

The chamber of commerce, however, was pleased. One of its top members, Malin Burnham, was an old friend and business partner of Stanley Foster. Burnham had been a key member of the superintendent selection committee, appointed by the school board, that had recommended Bersin's appointment. And one of Bersin's first orders of business was to create an ad hoc committee to accelerate the sale of so-called surplus district real estate to development interests.

Burnham, whose father got rich buying and selling downtown real estate, was a natural ally for Foster, who had married a daughter of the city's old-line Ratner family, which once operated a clothing factory at the center of town. As the city grew, both men had prospered, branching into venture-capital investments.

One was called Sorrento Associates, which invested in local start-up companies. Burnham was a founder, and partners included Hang Ten International, whose board chairman was Foster. According to a November 1996 report in Venture Capital Journal, investors in the $7 million Sorrento Ventures III Ltd., an investment fund of the parent company, included Foster, Burnham, and Irwin Jacobs, the founder of Qualcomm who also would become a major financial contributor to the Bersin cause.

All three men would play crucial roles in Bersin's career by bankrolling campaigns on behalf of school-board candidates who supported the superintendent. Burnham used his power as a Republican financier to muscle officeholders, such as San Diego mayor Dick Murphy, into providing support for Bersin and his policies.

An example came in October 2001, when Burnham convened a luncheon meeting at downtown's exclusive University Club to increase the 3-2 pro-Bersin board majority. One of his business allies and a fellow Bersin backer, Mel Katz, owner of a temporary employment firm, told the Union-Tribune that it was Murphy's duty to line up Bersin-friendly school-board candidates and get them elected.

"Every child in public school in San Diego is in Mayor Murphy's jurisdiction, and he should speak up about who should run for school board...or try to help find a candidate," Katz was quoted as saying. "Right now, Mayor Murphy has unbelievable popularity, and his name would mean a lot."

Stanley Foster died of cancer at age 74 on November 14, 2001, with the work of the school district's ad hoc real estate committee unfinished. But the district continued its push for asset sales. Any discussion of selling off school sites triggered anger among parents. As schools faced closings, critics suspected that Bersin and his friends were lining their own pockets at the public's expense.

Crown Point Elementary in Pacific Beach became a flashpoint. In January of this year, Bersin moved to close the school on the basis of sagging attendance. Parents, who said they were blindsided by the proposal -- which came days before it went before the school board -- mounted a protest against the closing, arguing that declining enrollment figures were being used as an excuse to turn the land over to developers who coveted the school site for condominium construction. The outcry caused Bersin to pull the item from the board agenda; the district said it would "reevaluate" the school's attendance numbers.

But the reprieve was brief. In June, the school board voted, with its familiar 3-2 pro-Bersin majority, to seek "public input" on the proposed closing of Crown Point, Rolando Park Elementary School in Rolando, and Barnard Elementary in Point Loma. The matter was scheduled to come before the school board November 9.

There was another protest from parents, and in late October, just days before the November election, the matter was pulled until after the new school board was seated. It remains to be seen whether, in light of new political realities brought about by the election, Bersin will bring school closings back before the board again.

In the end, even Miyo Reff admitted to supporters that the last-minute infusions into the campaign of big money from Broad, Riordan, and the Lincoln Club had backfired, contributing to her election loss to Lee.

Though her own campaign committee had accepted $1000 from Mel Katz and his wife Linda, as well as $1000 from Malin Burnham and his wife Roberta -- along with thousands more from various members and officials of the chamber of commerce -- Reff disavowed knowledge of the independent committees financed by Katz, Broad, and other chamber backers.

"You ask the questions that haunt us and make us wonder if we could have run the campaign differently," she wrote in an e-mail to a Pacific Beach voter. "Historically [since Bersin], big money has come into school board elections. By law a candidate has no knowledge or contact with independent expenditure campaigns.

"We did not know who or how much, nor what they would do. We just knew labor and business were beginning their dance around the candidates. And because I had kept my rhetoric tame, they were beginning to dance around me. We could refuse checks made out directly to our campaign but had no control over the independents.

"The differences between Mitz and I were mainly style not substance. However, in the end there was a $200,000 difference that any intelligent voter would add to the equation.

"I am glad I ran, because it was important to offer the voters a choice between two good candidates. I have worked with Mitz, and she will do a good job for the students of San Diego. I am hoping everyone will support the new board as they meet the needs of the students, employees, and community members.

"People like you are what has made my campaign so rewarding," the e-mail continues. "There are people across San Diego who care passionately about doing the right thing for the kids. Good luck on keeping Crown Point open and strengthening the Mission Bay High School Cluster. I have not decided on my next project, but I know it will involve kids."

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Safe in Encinitas – coast live oaks, Engelmann oaks, Fremont cottonwoods, western sycamores, and Torrey pines

Not as safe – invasive trees, fruit trees, palm trees.

History was repeating itself. What happened in 2002, and before that, in 2000, was happening again. Big bucks began to show up in San Diego. Much of this money came from wealthy out-of-towners. Where this money went was to the campaigns of three San Diego Unified school-board candidates. The money arrived in five- and six-figure contributions to campaign committees with names like that of the Marin County-based "Independent Committee to Support Local Schools" and the "San Diego Lincoln Club." These committees had no apparent ties to the candidates. Many mailings and radio ads didn't even mention the candidates. Instead, they attacked their opponents. "Our Children Can't Afford Mitz Lee on Our School Board!" read a piece sent by the "Independent Committee to Support Local Schools." "Mitz Lee says she wants to buy out the Superintendent's contract early -- at a cost of nearly $400,000! That's a lot of money to pay a person not to work! The last thing our school board needs is Mitz Lee and her financial mismanagement." Spots featuring Republican district attorney Bonnie Dumanis aired on the radio, courtesy of the GOP's Lincoln Club, praising Lee's opponent, chamber of commerce favorite Miyo Ellen Reff. Reff also was backed by the AFL-CIO's San Diego labor council, which is often allied with the chamber on growth, construction, and possible development of vacant school property. The labor council spent $26,000 on Reff's behalf.

It was much the same for two other board candidates endorsed by the chamber: Ben Hueso, a city redevelopment manager and longtime friend and associate of San Diego city councilman Ralph Inzunza, and Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, a member of the city's Southeastern San Diego Development Corp. She was defeated by former schoolteacher and Navy medic, Shelia Jackson, who did not enjoy establishment support and was vastly outspent.

Hueso, who was endorsed by the three-member school-board majority that favored Bersin, benefited from at least $35,650 in mailings paid for by the Independent Committee for School Reform, according to official disclosure filings. Much of that expenditure was funded by a $35,000 loan to the committee from Mel Katz, a temporary-employment firm owner with close ties to outgoing board member Ron Ottinger. Hueso also received at least $10,000 in support from the AFL-CIO's San Diego Labor Council.

Hueso's opponent, Luis Acle, a conservative Republican and former official in the Reagan administration, also received support from the Lincoln Club, but the $2800 that the group spent in mailers on his behalf was small compared to the $131,000 total the club lavished on behalf of its favorites, Reff and Whitehurst-Payne. Thirty thousand dollars of that came from a last-minute contribution by billionaire John Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune and a charter-school advocate who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The Independent Committee for Local Schools is a "paper" committee run out of the Mill Valley offices of Vigo "Chip" Nielsen, a lawyer who specializes in setting up and servicing campaign-finance committees for Republican causes. San Diego's Lincoln Club, a group of wealthy Republicans, has evolved into a cash conduit for donors who want to shield their identity from the public. The so-called independent expenditures of the political committees also allow big-money donors to avoid the district's $500-per-person limit on contributions to school-board races.

For her part, Whitehurst-Payne got at least $118,000 in support of her campaign from the San Diego Education Association, the teachers' union, which endorsed her candidacy. She also had the advantage of at least $32,000 in radio commercials purchased by the Lincoln Club.

Who else was putting up the big bucks, and what were their motives? As mail hit doorsteps in early November, campaign disclosure statements revealed a familiar story with a cast known to those who have followed the six-year saga of Alan Bersin and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce's attempts to take over the school board.

At the top of the list is Eli Broad, a Los Angeles billionaire who made his fortune building houses and in the insurance business. According to campaign filings, on October 25, Broad contributed $45,000 to the Independent Committee to Support Local Schools; the contribution was earmarked to defeat Mitz Lee. Broad's close friend and political ally, Richard Riordan, the ex-Los Angeles mayor who now serves as education secretary to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, gave $5000.

A champion of public school "reform," Democrat Broad, a longtime Bersin ally, has a history of hiding his financial support of the superintendent's efforts to retool the school district.

Broad's involvement in San Diego school politics dates back to summer and fall 2000, when Padres owner John Moores (along with Moores's partner, downtown real estate mogul Malin Burnham) and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs spent more than $720,000 on a campaign of television spots attacking Democratic board incumbent Frances Zimmerman and her opposition to Bersin's policies.

The commercials opened with a shot of students walking down a hallway. A photograph of a frowning Zimmerman was superimposed on the image while a male baritone voice intoned, "School board member Fran Zimmerman is leading the fight against San Diego's back-to-basics reform plan." After listing a series of Zimmerman's anti-Bersin votes, the voice concluded, "Tell Fran Zimmerman to stop voting against back-to-basics school reform. Because it's working."

To avoid identifying itself in the ads, the Moores group used a federal "527" political committee that called itself "the Partnership for Student Achievement," formed as a conduit for the funds. The only way to discover who paid for the campaign was to obtain the 527 filings from the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C.

Broad's efforts to avoid identification with the campaign went further. Records reveal his plan to escape detection involved two foundations from the East Coast, which gave a total of $157,000 to the anti-Zimmerman effort: $100,000 from Essential Information, Inc., of Washington, D.C., and $57,000 from Public Interest Projects of New York.

The two tax-exempt organizations seemed unlikely sources of such money. Founded in 1982, Essential Information was run by Russell Mokhiber, a then-46-year-old veteran of '60s and '70s left-wing politics who'd made a career of bashing America's corporate culture.

The foundation's website said that Mokhiber -- who grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, the child of working-class parents, and later worked for Ralph Nader -- was "one of the nation's leading authorities on corporate crime, is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, a legal weekly, and the author of Corporate Crime and Violence: Big Business Power and the Abuse of the Public Trust."

Sponsored
Sponsored

"Corporations are the only criminal class that has so marinated the law-making process with their money that they both define the law and influence enforcement of the law," Mokhiber told Florida's St. Petersburg Times in 1997. In 1999 he told the New York Times, "Corporate crime is crime without shame. It's gotten to the point where when a corporation pleads guilty to some criminal act, the stock goes up." Based on his biography, Mokhiber seemed an unlikely partner for capitalists Moores and Burnham.

The second foundation, Public Interest Projects, was more elusive. Its president, Donald Ross, is a Democratic lobbyist and longtime liberal activist in New York and Washington who founded the Ralph Nader-sponsored New York Public Interest Research Group in 1973. He and his partner, attorney Arthur Malkin, lobbied for the New York state trial attorneys' organization, which often pitted them against the state's business community.

Like Essential Information, Inc., Public Interest Projects had no history of contributing to education issues. No one from either foundation would respond to queries from a reporter as to why they gave sizable donations to a campaign against a San Diego school-board member.

More than two years later, after the foundations filed 2000 tax returns, it became clear that Eli Broad had used his own nonprofit, tax-exempt foundation to funnel his contributions to the two eastern charities that had given the money to the anti-Zimmerman advertising campaign.

A May 2001 tax return showed that in 2000, the Broad Foundation contributed $110,000 to Essential Information, according to a letter signed by Broad himself. "I am pleased to inform you that the Broad Foundation has approved your recent grant request to support Essential Information's efforts to encourage citizens to become active in public education issues in their communities.

"We are impressed with your prior work in disseminating education and other urban economic development information through conferences, journal articles, books, and reports. We are pleased to be able to support you as you continue this important work."

In a similar letter to Public Interest Projects, Broad wrote that his foundation had approved a $60,000 grant to support Public Interest Projects' "efforts to increase citizen awareness of the need for urban school reform."

"We are impressed with the mission of your organization and with your prior work in educating and informing the general public about community, health, and education issues. We are pleased to be able to support you as you continue this important work."

Within weeks after receiving the Broad Foundation money, both Essential Information and Public Interest Projects made their respective contributions to the Partnership for Student Achievement, which in turn spent the money to produce and air the anti-Zimmerman spots.

In the end, the Partnership's campaign backfired when a San Diego television station discovered the identity of Moores and the others who bankrolled the commercials. Broad escaped notice, thanks to his foundation-laundering ploy. The report also received newspaper coverage. With backing from the teachers' union, Zimmerman rode the backlash and was reelected.

But two years later, as Bersin sought again to bolster his board majority, Broad was back. Jeff Lee, a parent activist and a Zimmerman ally, faced off against Katherine Nakamura, the wife of an architect who specialized in school construction. Lee was endorsed by the San Diego Education Association, the teachers' union. Nakamura, who supported Bersin, was the chamber's choice.

The race between Lee and Nakamura to replace departing board member Sue Braun (another Bersin backer) was becoming a reprise of Zimmerman's reelection battle two years earlier against challenger Julie Dubick. But then, in August 2002, the Union-Tribune reported that it had "anonymously" obtained confidential military personnel records showing that Lee, a former Navy commander, had allegedly "abused subordinates" and been a "hostile leader."

Lee partisans suspected the material came from Pentagon sources related to retired high-ranking Navy and Marine officers whom Bersin had surrounded himself with as district bureaucrats. Bersin and the ex-brass denied any role, but the hit did its job.

Lee and his backers accused the U-T -- in particular Sunday "Opinion" writer Robert Caldwell, who wrote a 6700-word op-ed piece attacking Lee and boosting Bersin -- of distorting his service record for political gain. But the damage was done. Using clips from the newspaper, Broad poured $65,000 into hit pieces against Lee and incumbent John de Beck, who was running for reelection.

"I made an independent expenditure because I want to see the dramatic improvements in student achievement continue in San Diego," Broad said in a statement released by his office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Nakamura narrowly beat Lee.

Fast forward two years to the spring of 2004. Jeff Lee was now pursuing a career as a professional chef, having enrolled in Grossmont College's culinary arts program. He passed the baton to his wife, Mitz, a native of the Philippines who many in the city's downtown establishment, including the Lincoln Club and the chamber of commerce, derided because she spoke with an accent.

This time, the teachers' union withheld its endorsement from both candidates, saying it could "work positively with either Mitz Lee or Miyo Reff." Reff, an ex-PTA president and former biotech worker, had wrapped up the chamber of commerce's endorsement, along with the backing of the AFL-CIO's San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

The teachers' union had never been a fan of the Lees, fearing that the couple, both Republicans, would prove too independent and unpredictable when it came time to negotiate a new labor contract with the district. Although the union endorsed him in 2002, Jeff Lee wasn't the first choice. In the 2002 primary, the union backed Johnnie Perkins, a trash-company lobbyist with ties to his former boss, ex-San Diego city councilman Byron Wear, and Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary-treasurer of the labor council. Only after Perkins was defeated did the teachers' union throw its support to Jeff Lee.

Though the teachers' union remained neutral in the 2004 Mitz Lee race, Butkiewicz's labor council joined the chamber of commerce and the Lincoln Club in backing Republican Reff. "Our members really care a lot about education," he told reporters, who asked why the labor council had dumped more than $26,000 into independent expenditures on Reff's primary and general election campaigns. "Most of our members don't make enough to send their kids to private schools."

Others noted that Butkiewicz had long ago formed a close alliance with the downtown business establishment and the San Diego chamber of commerce, on whose board he sits. He and chamber executive director Jesse Knight were lobbying to get San Diego city taxpayers to subsidize a new football stadium for Chargers owner and Republican billionaire Alex Spanos of Stockton. He also backed John Moores in his quest for the Padres' downtown baseball stadium, the convention center expansion, along with hundreds of millions of dollars of other public-works projects.

In turn, the chamber agreed not to get in the way of unionized contracts and so-called "living" wages for public construction, both dear to the labor council but expensive for taxpayers. With the San Diego Unified School District mulling another multimillion-dollar bond issue to continue its rebuilding program, a board majority could be called on by labor and the chamber to hand out contracts for owners and construction workers.

The chamber and labor shared another agenda, their critics charged: liquidation of the school district's "surplus" real estate. Early in his tenure, Bersin had set up a real estate advisory committee, run by his father-in-law Stanley Foster, who had made a fortune in San Diego real estate by investing his wife's family money in South Bay property deals.

In a 1991 interview with Dirk Sutro of San Diego Executive Magazine, Foster, then 64, was quoted as saying he bought his first Chula Vista real estate, a 17-acre tomato field, in 1962, when he was 35, and turned it into an industrial park, earning a tidy return.

Foster was quoted as saying that he owned 17 industrial properties, with a total of one or two million square feet, "mostly in South Bay," many of which were leased to an assortment of border-related businesses, such as freight forwarders and maquiladora-support operations.

After his marriage to Foster's daughter Lisa, Bersin became an investor in the family real estate business. On January 24, 1992, according to county records, Stanley Foster, his wife Pauline, and Bersin and his wife, as well as a family-owned general partnership known as Marliskar, were listed on a fictitious business-name statement for an entity called Otay Terminal.

Four years later, in a document recorded on October 2, 1996, the Fosters and the Bersins were listed, along with Marliskar, as general partners in a statement of partnership for Otay Terminal. County real estate records showed that the market value of the four industrial parcels owned by the partnership, purchased between 1992 and 1998, including one directly across from the border, exceeded $12 million.

At the time, Bersin was serving as United States attorney here, having been appointed to the post by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Then-attorney general Janet Reno subsequently named Bersin to the dual position of "Border Czar," with the responsibility for stemming illegal immigration and drug trafficking along the Mexican border from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico.

In a September 1998 interview, Bersin described his family's real estate holdings. "It's a partnership in which my wife and I have an interest. I don't know when we made it, but it's something my father-in-law organized. It's a truck -- Consolidated Freight -- transfer point."

The Otay border acreage was the initial property purchased by the partnership, he added. "That's why it's called the Otay partnership.... And then there were other investments made in other properties. Kearny Mesa is one -- actually two in Kearny Mesa. I guess there's one in Vista. My wife and I invested in the partnership in cash, that's what the investment was." Bersin pointed out that the Otay Mesa purchase was made by Stanley Foster in 1992, "before I was U.S. Attorney."

While serving as U.S. attorney, Bersin became an outspoken proponent of the so-called Gateway of the Americas, a commercial shopping development near the Tijuana border crossing being assembled by Sam Marasco, a developer whose partner had once been Ron Hahn, son of Ernie Hahn, the Horton Plaza and Fashion Valley developer.

Bersin explained in the September 1998 interview that he had backed the project because he believed it would benefit the entire San Diego region. "Tijuana and San Diego and Customs and INS and GSA are all trying to develop the San Ysidro gateway between Tijuana and San Diego so that it reflects the kind of region that we're developing and lets the region, San Diego and Tijuana, take charge of their destiny because if we wait for federal governments to do it, we will never get the kind of port of entry that we need to build this U.S.-Mexico border region."

Bersin took over as city schools superintendent in March 1998. The ratification by the school board of his four-year contract and starting salary of $165,000 was unanimous, although boardmember Zimmerman abstained on the vote approving Bersin's appointment, saying that the selection process had been too swift and secretive.

''I am deeply troubled by the narrow, hurried, pressured, and secretive process that the board experienced in making its final decision,'' Zimmerman told a reporter for the Union-Tribune. "For me, an informed and thoughtful judgment on this most crucial matter was made impossible under such circumstances.''

Other critics included Latino lawyers, who criticized his get-tough immigration policies as U.S. attorney. "Frankly, we're astonished that a fellow lawyer with no proven interest in education could be named to head the second-largest school district in California," Esther Sanchez, president of the La Raza Lawyers, said in a written statement to reporters. "It appears to have been a result-oriented selection process in which politics, not qualifications, played a major role."

The chamber of commerce, however, was pleased. One of its top members, Malin Burnham, was an old friend and business partner of Stanley Foster. Burnham had been a key member of the superintendent selection committee, appointed by the school board, that had recommended Bersin's appointment. And one of Bersin's first orders of business was to create an ad hoc committee to accelerate the sale of so-called surplus district real estate to development interests.

Burnham, whose father got rich buying and selling downtown real estate, was a natural ally for Foster, who had married a daughter of the city's old-line Ratner family, which once operated a clothing factory at the center of town. As the city grew, both men had prospered, branching into venture-capital investments.

One was called Sorrento Associates, which invested in local start-up companies. Burnham was a founder, and partners included Hang Ten International, whose board chairman was Foster. According to a November 1996 report in Venture Capital Journal, investors in the $7 million Sorrento Ventures III Ltd., an investment fund of the parent company, included Foster, Burnham, and Irwin Jacobs, the founder of Qualcomm who also would become a major financial contributor to the Bersin cause.

All three men would play crucial roles in Bersin's career by bankrolling campaigns on behalf of school-board candidates who supported the superintendent. Burnham used his power as a Republican financier to muscle officeholders, such as San Diego mayor Dick Murphy, into providing support for Bersin and his policies.

An example came in October 2001, when Burnham convened a luncheon meeting at downtown's exclusive University Club to increase the 3-2 pro-Bersin board majority. One of his business allies and a fellow Bersin backer, Mel Katz, owner of a temporary employment firm, told the Union-Tribune that it was Murphy's duty to line up Bersin-friendly school-board candidates and get them elected.

"Every child in public school in San Diego is in Mayor Murphy's jurisdiction, and he should speak up about who should run for school board...or try to help find a candidate," Katz was quoted as saying. "Right now, Mayor Murphy has unbelievable popularity, and his name would mean a lot."

Stanley Foster died of cancer at age 74 on November 14, 2001, with the work of the school district's ad hoc real estate committee unfinished. But the district continued its push for asset sales. Any discussion of selling off school sites triggered anger among parents. As schools faced closings, critics suspected that Bersin and his friends were lining their own pockets at the public's expense.

Crown Point Elementary in Pacific Beach became a flashpoint. In January of this year, Bersin moved to close the school on the basis of sagging attendance. Parents, who said they were blindsided by the proposal -- which came days before it went before the school board -- mounted a protest against the closing, arguing that declining enrollment figures were being used as an excuse to turn the land over to developers who coveted the school site for condominium construction. The outcry caused Bersin to pull the item from the board agenda; the district said it would "reevaluate" the school's attendance numbers.

But the reprieve was brief. In June, the school board voted, with its familiar 3-2 pro-Bersin majority, to seek "public input" on the proposed closing of Crown Point, Rolando Park Elementary School in Rolando, and Barnard Elementary in Point Loma. The matter was scheduled to come before the school board November 9.

There was another protest from parents, and in late October, just days before the November election, the matter was pulled until after the new school board was seated. It remains to be seen whether, in light of new political realities brought about by the election, Bersin will bring school closings back before the board again.

In the end, even Miyo Reff admitted to supporters that the last-minute infusions into the campaign of big money from Broad, Riordan, and the Lincoln Club had backfired, contributing to her election loss to Lee.

Though her own campaign committee had accepted $1000 from Mel Katz and his wife Linda, as well as $1000 from Malin Burnham and his wife Roberta -- along with thousands more from various members and officials of the chamber of commerce -- Reff disavowed knowledge of the independent committees financed by Katz, Broad, and other chamber backers.

"You ask the questions that haunt us and make us wonder if we could have run the campaign differently," she wrote in an e-mail to a Pacific Beach voter. "Historically [since Bersin], big money has come into school board elections. By law a candidate has no knowledge or contact with independent expenditure campaigns.

"We did not know who or how much, nor what they would do. We just knew labor and business were beginning their dance around the candidates. And because I had kept my rhetoric tame, they were beginning to dance around me. We could refuse checks made out directly to our campaign but had no control over the independents.

"The differences between Mitz and I were mainly style not substance. However, in the end there was a $200,000 difference that any intelligent voter would add to the equation.

"I am glad I ran, because it was important to offer the voters a choice between two good candidates. I have worked with Mitz, and she will do a good job for the students of San Diego. I am hoping everyone will support the new board as they meet the needs of the students, employees, and community members.

"People like you are what has made my campaign so rewarding," the e-mail continues. "There are people across San Diego who care passionately about doing the right thing for the kids. Good luck on keeping Crown Point open and strengthening the Mission Bay High School Cluster. I have not decided on my next project, but I know it will involve kids."

Comments
Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Dozer the pit bull bids farewell to The Bullpen

A host of regulars say their teary goodbyes to bar’s beloved mascot
Next Article

Marni von Wilpert gets Falck and Zoo to cough up for gay rights

Times of San Diego sells to Arizona State offshoot
Comments
Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox Movies@Home — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close

Anchor ads are not supported on this page.