With a storm of controversy continuing over the firing of Austin Beutner as publisher of the L.A. Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, a companion issue is now growing: is the pro-Beutner campaign being engineered by operatives for Beutner's billionaire patron, Eli Broad, as part of a Southern California newspaper takeover scheme?
If so, it wouldn't be the first time that the ex-residential developer and insurance company magnate was tied to a stealth political effort, including one funded by cash from two small East Coast nonprofits backed by his L.A.-based Eli Broad Foundation.
As first reported here in October 2002, the clash was over a school-board seat deemed vital to the career of then–San Diego Unified School District head Alan Bersin.
Bersin was favored by Broad and his wealthy associates, including fellow California billionaire and Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs; Qualcomm executive Harvey White; then-Padres owner John Moores; Walmart heir John Walton; and real estate mogul Malin Burnham.
The controversial Bersin was featured among "our heroes" on the website of Broad's nonprofit, the Broad Foundation, as a "non traditional" administrator who was "making difficult but needed changes" in San Diego schools.
Then came the school-board campaign of 2000.
Julie Dubick, a La Jolla attorney favored by Broad, faced off against a teachers’ union–backed incumbent who was a persistent critic of Bersin and his agenda, then being touted by his backers, including Broad, as a model for national education reform.
That fall, hundreds of 30-second television spots suddenly hit the air, a first for a school-board race here.
"School board member Fran Zimmerman is leading the fight against San Diego’s back-to-basics reform plan," said a dire-sounding voice-over. "Tell Fran Zimmerman to stop voting against back-to-basics school reform. Because it’s working."
The massive expenditure, at least $720,000 in TV time alone, was made by a newly formed outfit calling itself the Partnership for Student Achievement.
Besieged by questions from reporters about the source of its funding, the group was not eager to divulge its donors.
"Legally a nonprofit organization, the partnership says it is not advocating the defeat or election of any candidate, that it is protected under the First Amendment, and thus it is exempt from the state's campaign rules and regulations," reported the Union-Tribune in October 2000 as election day neared.
"To make all their campaign activities public is not necessary or appropriate," the group's Sacramento attorney Charles Bell told the paper.
John Johnson, then-chief of the San Diego Urban League and chairman of the partnership, was similarly recalcitrant about revealing the financial backers.
"Only reluctantly did Johnson disclose the top contributors to the campaign," the U-T reported.
"He could not say who is behind two of the top donors: Essential Information, a group that gave $110,000; and Public Interest Projects, which contributed $60,000."
That November, Dubick went down in defeat, attributed in part to the heavy-handed television and hit pieces employed on her behalf by the stealthy partnership.
She would later be named chief of staff to Republican mayor Jerry Sanders and became enmeshed in a 2013 court battle involving private email account use.
Meanwhile, the motives of the two East Coast groups in the bitter San Diego school-board race remained shrouded in secrecy.
Essential Information was led by Russell Mokihber, a onetime Ralph Nader acolyte whose anti-establishment monthly magazine featured stories with headlines including, "Corporate Pigs and Other Tales of Agribusiness" and "The World Bank: Fifty Years is Enough!"
Contacted by phone in October 2000, he said he didn't know about the group's San Diego donation and would check into the matter, but he failed to return repeated follow-up calls.
Donald Ross, the head of Public Interest Projects and a Washington lobbyist and Democratic donor, also did not respond to telephone messages.
An aide to Ross who identified herself as Pam Maurath confirmed the nonprofit had made the San Diego donation, adding she was "not aware" of any other details about the expenditure.
"There would have to be some personal connection,” she said by telephone that fall. “You would definitely have to know somebody."
It wasn't until May 2001 — well after Dubick was defeated — that the billion-dollar-plus Broad Foundation, run by Eli Broad, filed its annual financial disclosure with the Internal Revenue Service.
The form revealed that Broad had funded both nonprofits in October 2000, the same month they made their contributions to the San Diego school-board campaign.
Then, following repeated inquiries by the Reader, the L.A.-based foundation released two virtually identical letters, each dated October 2, 2000, personally 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," said the billionaire, awarding the group $110,000.
His letter to Public Interest Projects said Broad was making a $60,000 grant to support "efforts to increase citizen awareness of the need for urban school reform."
Queried about the timing of the donations, Broad’s then-spokeswoman Melissa Bonney Ratcliff, a former staffer for ex-vice president Al Gore, responded: "Both grants were unrestricted except for the purposes outlined in the grant letters."
She added, "Both foundations are qualified charitable organizations, and we had no control over how the money was used."
(Ratcliff later became vice president of marketing and events for the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce under its chief Jerry Sanders, the former mayor. She was killed last October when a 91-year-old driver ran over her while backing up in La Jolla.)
Meanwhile, the anti-Tribune tirade on behalf of Beutner continues in Los Angeles, with Latino leaders there dispatching a letter in support and county supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Mike D. Antonovich preparing a motion for board action on Tuesday, September 15, according to a report by LAObserved.com.
Last week Broad himself joined another group of backers in calling for the return of Beutner, who reportedly was fired after Tribune Publishing rejected a Broad bid for the Times and the Union-Tribune.