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Monday, Aug. 20, 2007 | On June 18, 2002, San Diego County supervisors handed out three grants of taxpayer money to local arts groups. They sent $100,000 to the San Diego Opera, $150,000 to the California Center for the Arts in Escondido and $53,000 to the San Diego Dance Theatre.

Supervisor Pam Slater-Price had earmarked the grants for the arts organizations. And she benefited from each grant’s recipient. Ian Campbell, the opera’s general director, was the first to return the favor. He wrote a $500 check to the Republican supervisor’s re-election campaign the day after the grants were approved.

Within 10 days, five more employees and volunteers from the nonprofits donated to Slater-Price’s campaign. She netted $1,850.

Slater-Price was two years away from an election — long before the time when fundraising begins in earnest. She didn’t have an opponent. She eventually cruised to an uncontested victory, winning 99.3 percent of the vote in her district, which stretches from Pacific Beach to Encinitas and inland to Escondido.

Now, as Slater-Price ramps up for her 2008 re-election campaign, she will be again relying on that little-used font in local political elections: the nonprofit sector.

The relationship is not common. Employees of nonprofit agencies aren’t known to be active political donors, but Slater-Price has been a prolific benefactor in her 15 years in office, dispensing millions of dollars in public funds to the opera, music festivals and playhouses.

In at least one case, a grant recipient has actively fundraised for Slater-Price, seeking donations from another organization to which the supervisor directed public funds. Ann Campbell, who earns $253,000 annually as the opera’s development director, has specifically solicited recipients of the county grants.

John Malashock, artistic director of Malashock Dance, a Point Loma dance company and school, said Campbell approached him this year. As Malashock remembers it, Campbell pointed out that his organization had benefited from Slater-Price’s generosity — it has received $40,000 in the last three years — and asked if he would commit to raising money.

Malashock agreed, and said he’d write a check and also try to raise $1,000 for the campaign. He said he was able to raise $750 from his family and a board member.

Slater-Price’s campaign received Malashock’s donations on June 15. Four days later, Slater-Price gave Malashock’s nonprofit dance company a $10,000 grant.

“I think people are well aware of her support for the arts,” Malashock said. “I guess I was approached because people knew she has been supportive. But there was absolutely no [quid pro quo].”

As Slater-Price prepares for next year’s election, her campaign has amassed a $400,000 treasury, helping dissuade other challengers from entering the race. She has accumulated the money with the help of dozens of people in organizations that have received grants from her. While other supervisors have received small donations from members of groups they’ve given grants to, none has profited as much as Slater-Price.

Since 2002, she has received at least $36,600 from employees and board members of the nonprofits she has funded. No other supervisor has received more than $2,000 in that time, according to a voiceofsandiego.org review of campaign finance disclosures.

The donations represent a fraction of her campaign’s overall earnings. Slater-Price, who has no opponent, raised $180,000 from January to June of this year — $19,400 of that from employees or volunteers at the nonprofits she has supported.

The connection between the grants and donations highlights one of the chief criticisms of the supervisors’ grant-giving: That the money is used to increase their power by funding campaign supporters and friends. A 2005 San Diego County Grand Jury report found that each supervisor’s personal priorities, not the county’s needs, determined where the funding went.

The grants garner individual recognition for the supervisors throughout the community, even though they are giving away county taxpayer dollars and not their own. The La Jolla Playhouse recognizes Slater-Price on its donor list. The supervisor, who has given $750,000 in public funds to the arts organization since 2002, is in its “Executive Producer Club.” Three Playhouse officials have donated a combined $450 to her current re-election campaign.

A government watchdog said the campaign donations appeared unusual, noting that nonprofit employees do not typically give to political campaigns.

“Clearly the question is whether the supervisor is soliciting the donations or whether the directors are giving on their own,” said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies and a former attorney for the state Fair Political Practices Commission. “It does raise questions when a contribution is given right after a grant is given. It certainly looks like a monetary thank you.”

No local nonprofit has benefited from Slater-Price’s grant-giving more than the San Diego Opera, which has received $1.3 million since 2002.

And no local nonprofit has been a bigger supporter of Slater-Price’s current re-election campaign, with the opera’s employees, directors and family members giving $6,950 this year. Sixteen people affiliated with the opera donated on the same day: April 26. Among them: Campbell, who earns $485,000 annually as the opera’s general director.

Slater-Price’s fundraiser, Jean Freelove, and her spokesman, John Weil, declined to release a list of the supervisor’s fundraising events. Weil did not return calls. He sent this comment by e-mail:

“There is absolutely no nexus between the grants awarded by the county and the donations that the Supervisor has received,” he wrote. “Constituents support the supervisor because they feel very strongly that she is doing a good job.”

Campaign finance laws require donors to disclose their employers and positions. But it is not obvious that many donors are affiliated with nonprofits because they often serve in volunteer capacities. It is not illegal for a grant recipient to give to a political campaign — or for that politician to give grants to supporters.

“The question is whether it’s appropriate,” said Stern, the former FPPC attorney. “The unspoken message is that if you don’t give, you don’t get.”

The city of San Diego has taken steps to limit donations such as those that Slater-Price received from grant recipients in 2002 — two years before she faced an election. The city does not allow donations to come in throughout an official’s term. City candidates can only begin fundraising one year before the election. The rule was adopted Jan. 5, 2005 to limit the time period during which elected officials can conduct business with their hands out for donations, said Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the San Diego Ethics Commission.

Several nonprofit employees said Slater-Price had not required or encouraged them to donate to her campaign. They said they’d given because they supported her politics.

Nancy Laturno Bojanic, executive director of Mainly Mozart, an arts group that has received $318,000 since 2002 from Slater-Price, said she believed many involved with the arts were politically active and loyal to the businesses and politicians that supported the arts.

“I think that people involved in the arts tend to be a very proactive, loyal sort of following,” Bojanic said. “They’re very aware of the fragility of the arts and appreciative of people who appreciate the importance.”

Staff Writer Nina Petersen-Perlman contributed to this report.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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