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Saturday, May 31, 2008 | Mayor Jerry Sanders has accepted more than $19,000 in campaign donations from donors who had business pending before the city, despite a promise not to do so.

Those financial supporters have had major mall expansions, residential re-zonings and construction contracts awaiting approval from the city. The donors work for housing and commercial developers, consultant firms and law offices.

For example, Sanders’ campaign has taken $7,500 from more than two dozen employees and lobbyists working for developers such as Pardee Homes and the McMillin Cos., which have been closely involved in an update to the future growth blueprint for the Otay Mesa area, which is still pending.

The donations aren’t illegal. They are only an issue because they break a campaign promise not to accept money from people with business pending before the city. And they come in a race in which Sanders’ lead challenger, businessman Steve Francis, has criticized the mayor for having too-close ties with developers. Francis, who accepted developer donations in his 2005 mayoral run, has eschewed campaign donations this time, personally bankrolling all of his $4 million primary campaign.

Campaign donations have been controversial before for Sanders. He has been criticized for his ties to Aaron Feldman, the president of Sunroad Enterprises, who supported Sanders’ 2005 run for mayor and held one of the mayor’s largest fundraising events that year. One of Feldman’s companies also buttressed the campaign for Sanders’ 2006 ballot propositions with $10,000.

In the wake of the controversy surrounding one of Feldman’s developments, Sanders said in April that his campaign had removed 1,000 people in the development community from a list of potential donors. The mayor, who has reported raising more than $769,000 to date, promised not to take money from anyone with business before the city.

“In the past it didn’t really matter because the mayor didn’t run the city,” Sanders said last month. “Now I run the city. It’s just more difficult and we’re trying to work our way through this and obviously it’s an abundance of caution now.”

His political consultant, Tom Shepard, said the campaign reviews each check to ensure its donor has no business pending. He acknowledged the system is imperfect, blaming the size of the city government.

“This is a very large institution, there are many moving parts,” Shepard said. “It’s not always possible for our staff to know who’s at what stage of the process at any one time. We do the best we can.”

The information is readily available. A search of the city clerk’s website and City Council records would have revealed dozens of donors with business pending at City Hall. Pardee and McMillin, for example, spent $9.2 million funding the Otay Mesa growth plan update, a document that will define the future of one of the last undeveloped tracts of land inside San Diego city limits. In exchange, they’ve been guaranteed that their preferred version of the plan will have an audience with the City Council. The update is currently being led by city staff, who report to Sanders.

When Sanders said in April that his campaign was not accepting money from donors with pending business, his campaign had already taken thousands of dollars from people with imminent projects, a trend that spanned the duration of his year-long fundraising effort. They have come as Sanders has admittedly struggled to raise cash.

In December, he took $2,240 from seven employees of J.R. Filanc Construction, which was awarded a $13 million contract in February to build a water pump station in Rancho Peñasquitos.

Officials and lobbyists for Westfield Corp., which has a $900 million expansion of University Towne Center currently working its way through the city’s permitting processes, have given $2,880 to his campaign.

In his latest campaign finance disclosure form filed May 22, Sanders returned 22 donations totaling $5,450. Shepard said he is unsure whether any other donations had been returned since its filing.

A review of hundreds of pages of campaign finance records shows that those refunds appear haphazard. The campaign refunded seven donations from Cushman & Wakefield officials. Steve Rosetta, a company executive director who gave $320, was given a refund. Jackie Rosetta, who lives at the same address, did not receive a refund. Nor did three other Cushman & Wakefield officials who gave this year.

“There is an example where Sanders says he is doing one thing and yet he is doing another,” said Charles Gallagher, Francis’ campaign manager. “Our issue is that it’s inappropriate for a sitting mayor to be soliciting contributions and receiving contributions while these same people are doing business with the city.”

After inquiries from voiceofsandiego.org in April, his campaign returned one donation from an employee of Sudberry Properties, which has proposed a development in Mission Valley called Quarry Falls. But it has not returned $2,240 given over the course of the campaign by seven other Sudberry employees, lobbyists and their relatives.

In some cases, the campaign has rejected the donations of development companies but accepted them from its registered lobbyists. It has refunded donations from officials with Marriott International and Barratt American, but kept money from lobbyists who represent the companies.

A review of the city clerk’s list of lobbyists would have revealed the relationship.

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

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