Jerry Brown's term as governor promises big returns for the two Oakland charter schools he founded.
So far this year, Brown has raised $2.3 million for the Oakland Military Institute and Oakland School for the Arts. American Indian tribes, foundations and companies that lobby state government regularly poured in donations at Brown's request.
Brown is about to eclipse what he raised last year, when he already was a powerful draw. Since becoming attorney general in 2007, he's bagged nearly $15 million for the schools.
State officials can raise unlimited donations for charity, but have to disclose them to the Fair Political Practices Commission. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raised $1.3 million for his After-School All-Stars charity last year.
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Many of the donations Brown solicited this year came from companies that actively lobby the governor's office:
- Cisco Systems lobbied the governor on budget tax issues and gave $25,000 to the military school in June.
- The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, which runs a casino in Temecula, gave $25,000 to the arts school in May. The tribe lobbied the governor this year on Internet gambling, which it opposes. Separately, Brown trumpeted the tribe's support for his budget plan.
- The Clorox Company Foundation gave $20,000 to the arts school in April. The company has been lobbying the governor on the state's Green Chemistry Initiative and the state budget.
- The Pacific Gas and Electric Company gave $50,000 to the schools in April. The company lobbied the governor this year on environmental policy and opposed a bill that would require utilities to get one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2020. PG&E didn't win that fight; Brown signed the bill the same month the donations came in.
Such donations are "problematic for the integrity for the political process" because they can be a way to influence officials and avoid campaign contribution limits, said Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson.
"Rather than giving to me, just give to my favorite charity," she said. "And I will know because I will have asked for the donation, and I will be appreciative."
Brown's office says the donations do not curry favor with the governor.
"These donations represent an opportunity for foundations, businesses and individuals to invest in their communities and help students succeed," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup wrote in an e-mail. "The Governor is very proud of the two schools he founded in Oakland more than a decade ago. These schools have served thousands of Bay Area students – many the first in their family to go on to college – and he remains committed to their success."
Bringing in money is a bit easier now that Brown is governor, but it's still hard work, said Marianne Gaddy, a fundraising consultant who works for the Oakland arts school.
"I think the fact that he's governor obviously helps," she said.
Brown sends out an annual fundraising letter for a gala benefiting the arts school. As governor, he doesn't have time for the follow-up phone calls to donors that he used to do as attorney general and mayor of Oakland, Gaddy said. But Brown still headlines the annual gala, along with stars like Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr. and Francis Ford Coppola. "They're friends of his," explained Gaddy.
Gaddy, who raised money for Brown's political campaigns in the past, handles the donor calls. Her firm got to keep $97,000 of the $2 million it raised last fiscal year, according to the school's tax filings. She said no one has ever asked for anything in exchange for a donation.
One of the biggest donors to Brown's charities has been the American Indian tribe that runs the San Pablo Lytton Casino in the Bay Area. The Lytton Rancheria gave $50,000 to the military school and $100,000 to the arts school this year. The tribe has given $450,000 to the schools since 2007.
The tribe's spokesman says it's simple philanthropy.
“Many of the members of the Lytton Rancheria have not had the same economic opportunities as the rest of society, and now that they have the financial means to assist those who are the least able, they are willing to step up to the plate,” said Doug Elmets. “The tribe really needs nothing from the governor or his administration."
Anne Ruffino, who lives near the San Pablo casino, has "very mixed feelings" about the donations. She calls the casino “sleazy” and is a plaintiff in a lawsuit to shut it down. But she has a hard time objecting to charitable giving.
Ruffino, 67, figures the tribe's donations are "just making sure that there's a general good aura about them so that if it comes to someone's attention, they'll already sort of be on their side a little bit."
Thanks in part to Brown's fundraising, the Oakland School for the Arts has done well for itself.
The school brought in nearly $4 million more than needed for its $6.5 million budget last year. The extra money went to pay off building improvements that provide students with an art gallery, film editing studio, theater and dance floors, according to Executive Director Donn Harris. The building likely will be paid off by January, but the school still needs about $500,000 in donations on top of state funding every year.
It appears that if Brown's fundraising keeps up its pace, the money he brings in will outstrip those needs. At that point, Harris said, the school would set up an endowment.
The goal is "to not be reliant on Jerry," said board member Randi Protopappas.
In the meantime, Protopappas sees no problem with the governor soliciting money from special interests.
"It's not going in his pocket," she said. "It goes straight to the schools, and it's benefiting kids."