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Il duce During the past two decades, since political consultant Tom Shepard was forced to plead guilty to campaign-law-related violations in the 1985 political money-laundering case against his ex-client, fallen San Diego mayor Roger Hedgecock, Shepard has become the fixer of choice for the city's GOP establishment. He's handled the well-bankrolled campaigns of Mayor Susan Golding, Sheriff Bill Kolender, county supervisor Ron Roberts, the downtown convention center expansion, the Padres' taxpayer-subsidized baseball stadium, and Mayor Jerry Sanders.

Those gigs were paid for by wealthy contributors and heavily promoted by the Union-Tribune, the longtime herald of business insiders like real estate mogul Malin Burnham and his partner, Padres owner John Moores. At the same time, Shepard, a former Del Mar mayor, has also been tapping the public till with a series of gigs as a "public relations" consultant to government entities like the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which through the beginning of this week has paid him $152,265.59 to help persuade voters to move Lindbergh Field.

Latest on the list of Shepard's public clients is San Diego State University president Stephen Weber, who last year grabbed control of the Paseo campus-redevelopment project -- which was being planned in conjunction with the city -- away from the San Diego State University Research Foundation. Neighbors who had worked for years on project planning were up in arms, city councilman Jim Madaffer went on a rampage, longtime foundation board member Tom Carter quit in disgust, and even the Union-Tribune began reporting on the cascade of negative fallout that followed Weber's clumsy takeover. The SDSU president seemed to be up to his neck in alligators, but the U-T's Prague Spring was not to last.

Shepard's arrival, at a reported fee of $10,000 a month, coincided with a series of remarkable turnabouts. Weber appeared on KPBS-FM, the public radio station he controls as university president, and was given a sympathetic hearing during which, according to irate neighbors, their calls critical of the project were screened out. Mayor Sanders and his top land-use aide, Jim Waring, met with Weber and appeared to cut the ground from under Madaffer by announcing they were close to a deal to cede control of the Paseo to Weber. City redevelopment officials, who had been expecting to put the Paseo back out to bid per Madaffer's plan, were incredulous.

Under Shepard's tutelage, Weber then headed over to the Union-Tribune's editorial board, a venue notoriously friendly to downtown's powers that be. A March 17 story under the byline of Lisa Petrillo explained that the board "regularly hosts newsmakers to discuss current events and invites reporters and editors from the newsroom." Definitely not a friendly venue for tough questions from lowly beat writers. The result was clear in a lengthy editorial the paper ran last Friday: "Opening the project to all bidders would spur a counterproductive confrontation between the city and the university." Proclaimed the U-T with finality: "A project that SDSU pays for, Weber has said, SDSU will control."

Game player Tom Shepard isn't the only local politico to cash in on local government largesse. Take the example of Arturo Castanares, ex-chief of staff to former state Democratic senator Steve Peace. After leaving Sacramento, Castanares started CornerStone Strategies, which has done campaign work for San Diego city councilman Ben Hueso, among other local Democrats, as well as for labor unions. In the spring of 2004, CornerStone signed a $60,000 contract with the airport authority to provide "assistance in the development of message points" and "assistance with identifying issues that could affect public relations strategy." An airport spokeswoman said Peace, who authored the bill setting up the authority, was closely involved in CornerStone's work, but Castanares says Peace doesn't have an ownership interest in the firm. When first asked in January 2005 for invoices submitted by CornerStone, the authority said the company had never been paid; a recent inquiry under the Public Records Act revealed that CornerStone was cut a single $60,000 check last April 6. A series of $10,000 monthly invoices submitted by the company from April through September of 2004 say services included "research and counsel relative to legislative issues"; "travel time and meetings in Sacramento related to proposed language"; and "contact with legislative members and staff regarding legislation."

Free food Before Ellen Oppenheim caught a plane last week to her new job running Reno's convention and visitors authority, she dropped off her last statement of economic interests at San Diego's city hall. Dated March 17, the document reveals that Oppenheim, the ex-park and recreation head who served a short time as chief deputy of public works to Mayor Jerry Sanders before pulling the plug on him and heading north, got a $175 gratuity this January 21 in the form of "participation in a dinner event" from the Buick Invitational golf tournament, held on the city-owned Torrey Pines Golf Course.

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