Romer Reveals Donors
Wednesday, July 13, 2005 - The nonprofit organization Superintendent Roy Romer set up to defend Los Angeles Unified's image against political attacks relied almost entirely on contributions from construction firms, textbook publishers and other school contractors, records released Tuesday showed.
Friends of L.A. Schools Inc., which Romer formed in February just days after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his support for plans to break up the district, received single donations of $10,000 from investment bank Goldman Sachs, DMJM building consultants, Turner Construction and publishers Harcourt Inc. and Pearson Education - all of which have contracts totaling millions of dollars with the school district.
Romer defended the more than $146,000 in total donations, which he sought personally, saying his fundraising never influenced LAUSD business.
"I have absolutely no issue of ethics in doing what I'm doing here. I'm clearly representing the district here and I have no hesitancy in going to people for money," Romer said after releasing the list. "I'm not going to skinny down in some hole like I did something wrong."
Still, the list raised questions among a number of political observers.
"It's an ethical question," said Bob Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies.
"The question is why are these companies giving? They're giving because they want to curry favor from the school district and by giving money to this fund they will gain an advantage. Decisions are supposed to be based on the merits, not on who's giving to Roy Romer's fund. The perception is that you have to give if you want to receive benefits from the school district - that money has an impact."
Romer said he created the nonprofit to counter "brutal" attacks. In February, mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg made reform of the LAUSD a major issue in the campaign by calling for breaking up the nation's second-largest school district. Schwarzenegger backed his call and other major candidates proposed their own reform plans, including the city's new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who called for direct authority to name school board members.
Romer, the former governor of Colorado and erstwhile head of the Democratic National Committee, said his fundraising was no different than what the governor and mayoral candidates do to get money for their campaigns and their own causes.
"Don't put a standard on a school superintendent that you don't put on everybody else," he said.
Romer does not get involved in awarding contracts, said special assistant to the superintendent Glenn Gritzner.
Romer's office will release by the end of the week a detailed account of the fund expenditures, but the money was spent on the district's State of the Schools address in May and related community forums to get its accomplishments out to the public, Gritzner said.
"There's no correlation between the people who do business with us and whether or not they contribute. What about looking at how many people do business with us that don't contribute," Gritzner said. "It's a perfectly legitimate and understandable effort to communicate more effectively, more often, with a wider group of people."
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said Romer's fund and its activities raise serious ethical and legal questions and should probably be investigated or audited by an outside authority, although she was not certain whether county or state officials would have jurisdiction.
Such organizations are not allowed to advocate for or against candidates, she noted. And they are only allowed to spend 20 percent of their time and resources on issue advocacy.
Because Romer's group was formed during a mayoral campaign, and apparently in response to issues raised by one of the candidates - and at a time when there was no specific legislation or ballot measure proposed - the group stepped into a "gray area" between advocating for issues and advocating for and against candidates, she said.
"As a 501(c)3 (an IRS-designated charitable organization), they're speaking to an issue. Where there is no initiative or something you can point to that is not related to a candidate's race, it makes the 501(c)3's advocacy much more questionable," she said.
"The timing of the creation of the 501(c)3 was at the very moment when we were engaged in a mayoral race, again where no initiative was on the ballot and this was not an issue being discussed outside of the mayoral race, (which) really puts into question whether or not this 501(c)3 legitimately advocated on these issues."
One question that an investigation should examine, she said, is how much of the organization's time and resources were spent on promoting an issue, and whether the group has a life outside of that issue. In other words, did the group cease its activities after the mayoral campaign ended? The law says such groups can only spend 20 percent of their resources on advocacy, she said.
"The problem of somebody who is holding a public service office soliciting money from people who are vendors to that office - that raises serious questions about the ethics of the relationship between the officeholder, Roy Romer, and the vendors," Feng said. "It raises serious concerns for us that there is pay-to-play politics involved."
Hertzberg, who now heads Villaraigosa's transition team, called for full disclosure of the donors.
In a letter to Romer sent late Monday, Hertzberg urged him to "follow the inspired lead of our new mayor of Los Angeles, who set the high ethical standard by requiring that contributions made to the L.A.'s BEST after-school program during his inaugural celebration be made public, despite no specific statutory obligation to do so."
Nonprofits are not required to disclose the names of donors.
"We really need to examine this from a public-policy point of view. Should a superintendent who has power over contracts raise money in this way? These are important questions given the ethical issues that we've been facing in Los Angeles government," Hertzberg said.
Ed Burke, chief of staff for school board member Jon Lauritzen, said the only problem they have with Romer's nonprofit is they were not "in on it in the beginning." Otherwise, they laud Romer's abilities to raise funds for a district that needs it.
"It's not like these companies are going to get something from him because they're already involved with the district. Most of those people believe in what the district is doing and they are people who tend to be friends. It's the board who awards the contract, not the superintendent. We think Romer's strongest point is the fact that he's able to raise funds and do this for the district. He's a good defender and cheerleader for the district."
Naush Boghossian, (818) 713-3722 < mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>email@example.com
Friends of L.A. Schools Donors
Here is a list of the contributors to Superintendent Roy Romer's nonprofit agency, formed to promote the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Donor, Connection, Amount
Francie Alexander Unavailable $500
Suellen Atkinson Unavailable $355
Celeste DeCuir Publishing representative, Glencoe/McGraw Hill $500
Chet Foraker Vice president, SRA/McGraw Hill $525
J. Stuart Horsfall President, Sopris West Educational Services $375
Theodore Mayer Unavailable $500
Shirley M. Owens Unavailable $500
Patricia L. Williams Unavailable $1,000
Apple Computer Inc. Computer equipment and curriculum software $10,000
Bovis Lend Lease Inc. Construction and project management $10,000
Cambium Leaning Inc. Instructional materials, services and technology $12,500
CCG/Harris Construction management $10,000
DMJM H+N Architecture, engineering and construction services $10,000
Goldman-Sachs Investment banking and securities $10,000
Harcourt Inc. Educational publisher $10,000
HMC Architects Construction planning and design $10,000
Parsons Corp Construction and engineering $10,000
Pearson Education Educational publisher $10,000
PinnacleOne Inc. Construction and consulting $10,000
Scholastic Inc. Educational publisher $10,000
Time for Kids Time Magazine children's publication and Web site $2,500
Turner Construction Co. Construction $10,000
William J. Yang & Association Provides minority- and women-owned business directories $10,000
SOURCE: Superintendent Roy Romer; Daily News research
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