San Diego State University
San Diego State University / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego State University has spent about $1.6 million crafting its vision for the old Qualcomm Stadium site.

That spending – on architects, real estate and stadium experts, a public relations firm and a veteran political operative – helped boost the university’s Mission Valley expansion plans before last fall’s election. After seeing and hearing from the university about what it could do with the stadium site, voters approved a ballot measure that essentially forces the city to sell land to SDSU.

During the campaign, the university had to dance a fine line. As a general rule, public agencies like SDSU cannot spend public money to urge people to vote for or against a ballot measure, unless the spending is explicitly authorized by law, the California Supreme Court has ruled. There’s no hard and fast rule about what is OK, because the court said that depends on the “style, tenor and timing” of information coming from a public agency.

Documents released by the university in response to a public records request by Voice of San Diego drive home just how close to the line SDSU went – one political consultant did work for SDSU right up until he joined a campaign trying to get land for the university. And though the records shed light on how the university spent $1.6 million creating the plans, officials will not clarify where the money came from.

A year before the vote, the university released a plan for what it would do with the land, if the measure passed. The plan included a new stadium, a river park, more space for research and thousands of new housing units. It continued to release new renderings of plans for the site in the months leading up to the vote.

Boosters formed Friends of SDSU, which spent about $3 million supporting SDSU and opposing a rival project known as SoccerCity. City Councilman Scott Sherman and SoccerCity backers cried foul, arguing the Friends of SDSU campaign was illegally using the “SDSU” brand. A judge rejected that argument.

The university and the campaign did obviously have some things in common. The campaign used renderings of the stadium site produced by SDSU design consultant Carrier Johnson + CULTURE. SDSU paid the architectural firm about $370,000 for its work.

In fall 2017, the Friends of SDSU campaign also hired Tom Shepard, a veteran political consultant in San Diego. He’d been working for the university since that summer on its expansion plans, billing a modest $3,500.

When the campaign hired him, he left the university.

“My relationship with SDSU terminated immediately after I was retained by Friends of SDSU,” Shepard said in an email. “I did not take non-public materials from SDSU.”

The university has withheld some records related to its pre-election planning, including financial models that are supposed to back up the university’s claim that it can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the expansion without increasing costs to students. Voice of San Diego is suing for those records.

But the university released other records that provide an accounting of the money officials spent on what they call SDSU Mission Valley.

The university though, has not said where the $1.6 million it’s already spent came from. It’s only said it plans to recoup the money by developing the site – a site it doesn’t yet own and won’t make money from until some years in the future. When asked if it borrowed money or received donations to pay its handful of consultants, the university didn’t give a clear answer.

“SDSU has not and will not request state funds or student tuition and fees for these costs,” spokeswoman Cory Marshall said in an email.

The university is now moving onto the next phase of the expansion. Last week, it announced it had hired Clark Construction Group to design a new football stadium.

The university and the city also jointly announced the teams each had chosen to negotiate a land deal. The city’s team includes the city’s chief operating officer, Kris Michell, who used to be a board member of the university-affiliated Campanile Foundation. The university’s team includes one of its consultants, John Kratzer, the CEO of JMI Realty.

The Campanile Foundation hired the university’s earliest consultant in mid-January 2017 when it looked like talks between SDSU and SoccerCity, which wanted to partner with the university, were both heating up and breaking down.

On Jan. 19, 2017, the foundation hired Intesa Communications Group, led by Margie Maddux Newman, to work on “Mission Valley relations.” The firm would eventually collect about $340,000. It also provided “media training” to the university’s new president, Adela de la Torre.

On Feb. 3, 2017, the university brought on JMI Sports to plan the new football stadium. The university eventually paid JMI Sports about $300,000.

On Valentine’s Day 2017, talks completely deteriorated, and a deal between SDSU and SoccerCity was off the table. The university began hiring more consultants.

That summer, the university hired JMI Realty at $30,000 a month to provide financial modeling, planning and “political strategy” for the whole site. The firm would eventually bill about $430,000 for its work.

It also hired Populous, another design firm. The firm collected about $130,000 from the university for helping plan for a new stadium.

In September, the university hired Carrier Johnson.

The university also re-upped the Intesa contract. By then, contracts were floated through a law firm, San Diego-based Gatzke Dillon & Ballance. Because of that, the university for months refused to release most of the contracts, citing attorney-client privilege. (Last fall, the foundation did release the first contract with Intesa, which was not covered by claims of attorney-client privilege.)

VOSD’s attorney, Felix Tinkov, said routing routine documents through an attorney in order to claim attorney-client confidentiality is a sham.

SDSU’s second contract with Intesa lays out how this process worked for that firm. Intesa sent its bills to Gatze Dillon & Balance at the beginning of each month and then the law firm forwarded the invoices to SDSU, which was “solely responsible” for paying the bills.

Eventually, though, after VOSD threatened to sue the university, SDSU released contracts it had previously withheld.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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