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San Diego County Supes Accept Gifts And Thanks, Despite Rules To Prevent It

Above: San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Dianne Jacob delivers 2014 State of the County Address

Aired 9/3/14 on KPBS News.

Organizations that receive grants through San Diego County's Neighborhood Reinvestment Program sometimes give county supervisors gifts and recognition. And some supervisors accept these gratuities, despite rules set up to avoid the appearance of influence buying.

It’s common to see politicians at events for nonprofits — giving keynote speeches, cutting ribbons at grand openings and rubbing elbows with philanthropists at fundraising galas. Less obvious is the fact that these politicians can dole out millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in grants to those nonprofits.

These grateful organizations sometimes give San Diego County supervisors gifts and recognition. And some supervisors accept these gratuities, despite rules set up to avoid the appearance of influence buying.

Since the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program’s ban on gifts from grant recipients went into effect on Sept. 28, 2010, three supervisors reported accepting 14 gifts from grant recipients in their annual statement of economic interest forms.

Gifts reported by Supervisors Ron Roberts, Greg Cox and Bill Horn included tickets to galas, dinners and golf tournaments, with a total value of $1,600 between 2011 and 2013.

Cox and Roberts both defended the gifts, saying the events they attended were fundraisers that are exempt from the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program’s rules. (The NRP only bans “reportable” gifts, which must be disclosed by state law. Reportable gifts don’t include up to two tickets to a nonprofit’s fundraising event).

Supervisor Bill Horn only reported one gift from a grant recipient: Tickets to an award dinner from the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce. Horn’s spokesperson said in an email that the gift was misreported and actually came from Tri-City Medical Center.

NRP rules apply to all supervisors even if one supervisor gives an organization a grant and another is recognized. The policy places responsibility on the supervisors to ”not accept from those organizations” any reportable gifts.

Supervisors have also been recognized more than half a dozen times in theater programs, websites and the like since the ban went into effect.

The NRP fund and its history of controversy

The rules curtailing gifts and recognition were aimed specifically at grants given through the NRP, now a $10 million discretionary fund. Each supervisor can essentially do as they please with $2 million a year.

The NRP is intended to direct money quickly into the causes and organizations that need it in their community. By leaving grant decisions up to individual supervisors, they can avoid the lengthy and complex budget process.

The fund has generated controversy — and two grand jury reports — over the years. Critics claim the funds are used to curry favor with powerful local nonprofits and to bolster supervisors’ re-election chances.

Supervisorial elections get so little attention that the elections come down to whom voters recognize, said Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University.

“Name recognition is critically important for getting re-elected to local office,” second only to fundraising, he said.

Incumbents have greater name recognition “because they do things like give money to nonprofits,” Adams said. “They show up in nonprofits events, they get honored by these various nonprofits, they get awards, plaques …”

In its 2011 report, the grand jury expressed a similar concern and called for greater transparency in the grant process:

"Certain nonprofit organizations, especially in the arts and culture community, wield strong political influence in San Diego County politics. Some Board offices make sure to allocate NRP funds with these institutions and align with their missions for political leverage. While it is legally correct, the Grand Jury feels it is not necessarily ethically correct."

Fundraising and name recognition have paid off — the last time an incumbent supervisor lost an election was in 1986. Since 1992, incumbents have faced a runoff vote only three times and have run unopposed seven times. Even with opposition, incumbent supervisors received on average almost 65 percent of the vote.

Search inewsource's database of NRP grants since 1998.

An inewsource investigation earlier this year found that a large portion of that money actually goes back to the county. Some top recipients of grant funds over the last 16 years included the Departments of Parks and Recreation and Public Works, the San Diego County Library, and the Health and Human Services Agency.

Examples of gifts and recognition to supervisors since the last quarter of 2010:

• The North Coast Repertory Theatre thanked now former Supervisor Pam Slater-Price and the County of San Diego for corporate-level sponsorship in 2011 show programs.

• The Fallbrook Arts Alliance website says the alliance was developed with support from “the County of San Diego at the recommendation of Supervisor Bill Horn.”

• Supervisor Ron Roberts reported attending the Kyoto Prize Symposium’s Kyoto Dinner in March 2013. The Kyoto Symposium Organization received a $3,500 grant from Supervisor Greg Cox in June 2011.

Cox received two tickets to an awards dinner and a ticket to an awards gala, both in 2011, from the Asian Business Association. Earlier that same year, the Asian Business Association received a $6,000 grant from Roberts.

• In July 21 Supervisor Dave Roberts apologized after U-T San Diego reported he had re-tweeted a YWCA tweet thanking him for an NRP grant.

Moves to reform the system

In response to a grand jury report, the Board of Supervisors amended the NRP’s rules in 2009. One of the major changes limited written recognition of specific supervisors. Grant recipients who wished to thank a supervisor were to use the exact language, “Funded by the County of San Diego at the recommendation of Supervisor (name).”

One year later, in September 2010, supervisors again voted to amend the NRP’s rules, in the midst of another grand jury probe. The change said grant recipients can’t give any written recognition to individual supervisors for NRP grants (even using the previously-allowed language), and supervisors cannot accept gifts from any organization that was awarded a grant after Sept. 28, 2010.

In its 2011 report, the grand jury praised the new NRP rules, but said, “supervisorial common sense, self-policing and careful vetting of grant applicants by Board staff are still needed.”

In a statement emailed to inewsource, Cox said he doesn’t make grant decisions with the hope of being invited to dinners. Cox, who along with Supervisor Dianne Jacob recommended the 2010 changes to the NRP, asserted that he “adhere(s) strictly to the rules.”

“Nonprofit organizations invite me to their events regularly because they feel that the presence of elected officials adds value to the event,” Cox said in the statement. “I try to attend if my schedule allows because a public official should participate in community events.”

Identifying violations of the NRP policy against written recognition can be difficult because organizations can receive county money from multiple sources. Aside from the NRP, there are Community Enhancement Program grants and one-time funds available to nonprofits.

In its 2011 report, the grand jury paid particular attention to that issue, noting that “countless recipient organizations’ annual reports list the ‘who’s–who’ of top donors that often include our Supervisors alongside the County’s top philanthropists. The Grand Jury could not find records of any personal donations by the Supervisors to these organizations that would merit this level of recognition.”

County policy today

Although the number of events and value of the gifts are not large, the county grand jury reports have underscored the relevance of gifts and recognition from grant recipients.

County Communications Office Director Michael Workman said the county doesn’t actively search for violations of the written recognition policy. If one is brought to their attention, the county will send a letter to the organization asking them to remove the recognition and informing them of the policy.

Supervisor Dave Roberts told KPBS Evening Edition in late June he’s considering some amendments that could add specific penalties for violations, such as a “do not fund list.”

For example, if a grant recipient puts up a sign at an activity site saying money was donated by a specific supervisor, the recipient would be notified and given 45 days to fix it. If the sign is still up after that time, “they shouldn’t be allowed to receive grant funding in a future cycle, say for a year or two,” Roberts said.

John Weil, Roberts’ chief of staff, said the supervisor is aiming to introduce the amendments this month.

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