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The North County Times (Del Mar/San Diego, CA)
Aug 18, 2007 - 01:00 AM
by ADAM KAYE - Staff Writer
Some fair board members generous to politiciansDEL MAR, CA -- You don't need to be a political donor to get a seat on the Del Mar fair board, but it doesn't hurt, state records show.
Donations to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger totaling more than $441,000 came from five of the board's nine members, according to records posted on the California secretary of state's Web site.
The documents show the money has gone to Schwarzenegger's election campaigns, inauguration events and to committees backing ballot measures he has sponsored.
There is no hint that board members violated laws with their contributions. At all levels of government -- from city councils that fill committee vacancies to the president who grants ambassadorships -- it is traditional for elected officials to show gratitude by appointing supporters to various posts.
Critics, however, say the appointments represent a broken promise by the governor, who vowed in his 2003 election campaign to end the practice and whose staff says money plays no role in who gets picked for various posts.
State records show five seated fair board members are financial donors to Schwarzenegger: Douglas Barnhart, his wife and employees, $174,000; Kim Fletcher and his company, Investors Leasing Corp., $110,600; Kelly Burt, $102,300; Vivian Hardage and her husband, $58,500; and Barry Nussbaum, $2,500.
Records do not show contributions to Schwarzenegger from Michael Alpert, Ruben Barrales, Ann Davies or Russ Penniman.
In a recent interview, a Schwarzenegger spokeswoman said there was no connection between campaign contributions and appointments. Each person named to the fair board has strong ties to the community, said spokeswoman Gena Grebitus.
"The governor's first goal is to appoint the most qualified people," she said. "They have businesses and are members of charities. Those are the things (Schwarzenegger) looks at when making the appointments."
'Qualifications are most important'
Some of the fair board members who have supported Schwarzenegger said recently that their qualifications, and not their donations, are what got them the job.
"Qualifications are most important," Fletcher said, "and having an active interest and being willing to spend time on the board. Contributions are secondary."
He said the governor was looking to appoint a member from the Del Mar area, and Fletcher -- a Rancho Santa Fe resident whose family has owned a home in Del Mar for all of his 79 years -- said he met that requirement.
Some board members, he noted, contributed nothing to Schwarzenegger at all.
"I probably could have given less money and still gotten appointed," he said.
Barnhart, a major construction contractor, said he supported Schwarzenegger before he took office and after he was elected
"If I'm accused of supporting Republican candidates -- guilty as charged," he said. "I'd do it again."
But did his support of the governor get him his fair board job? Barnhart said he didn't think so.
He said he's the one member of the fair board "who knows how to build things" and that much construction is needed at the fairgrounds.
"Anyone who wants to say I don't have the resume to sit on the board -- I would strongly disagree with that," Barnhart said.
Although Nussbaum contributed $2,500 to Schwarzenegger, he was appointed originally by former Gov. Gray Davis.
He said he didn't think his financial support of either politician influenced his appointment.
Hardage was out of town last week and unavailable for comment. Burt could not be contacted.
A broken promise?
Whether or not campaign contributions translate as fair board appointments, a political watchdog group -- the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights -- says Schwarzenegger has broken a promise by giving plum appointments to generous donors.
"When Schwarzenegger ran for office, one of his main issues was his claim that when money goes in the door and favors go out, the people lose," said Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate for the group.
"He said he was going to play a different game," Balber said. "Instead, he has become the most prolific fundraiser in California history and has fallen into exactly the same habit of rewarding contributors for their loyalty."
The perks of serving on the fair board are relatively small, but there's prestige in representing the seaside fairgrounds in affluent Del Mar, some insiders say.
Known formally as directors of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, board members set policy at the 350-acre fairgrounds and administer its $56 million budget.
The district puts on the San Diego County Fair and is the landlord of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which produces the summer race meet.
Nearly 350 events are held at the fairgrounds every year.
The fair board also controls the Surfside Race Place wagering facility and the Horsepark Equestrian Center east of the fairgrounds, on El Camino Real at Via de la Valle.
For their service, board members are not paid, but are entitled to free admission to any of these places. They enjoy box seats at the fair's grandstand concerts, a seat in the director's room during the horse races and a front-row parking place at the fairgrounds.
"Yes, you can go to the fair as often as you want," said former board member Louis Wolfsheimer, "but how many times can you go to the fair? It's not like being the U.S. ambassador to France."
"It's an appointment that people have always felt was very desirable," said Brooks Parry of Del Mar, a board member from 1986 through 1994. "It holds an appeal. It does seem to be a position that has a sort of charisma about it."
Nussbaum said the perks that come with the job are insignificant. He said the draw of serving on the panel is that the work is rewarding.
"It's the joy of working with a great group of people that create a facility that's world-class," he said.
It wasn't any recent appointments that caught the attention of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, but the alleged misdeeds of one of the fair board's former members, Balber said.
She said she began examining donations from fair board members when authorities tied Poway defense contractor Brent Wilkes to the corruption scandal of former Rep. Randy Cunningham.
Today, Cunningham is serving a prison term and Wilkes is awaiting trial on fraud and conspiracy charges.
State forms show Wilkes, his company and his family donated $77,400 to Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger appointed Wilkes to the board in 2004 and to the Race Track Leasing Commission in 2005, but ordered Wilkes removed from both panels after the Cunningham story broke.
At the time, the governor said that anyone he appoints must "resign immediately if they are doing anything unlawful or that is not cool."
Contact staff writer Adam Kaye at (760) 901-4074 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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