San Diego Last March, a mysterious last-minute political attack appeared in mailboxes throughout the Northern California senate district being contested by Democrat Byron Sher and Republican Patrick Shannon. The hit piece, "widely criticized as the dirtiest of the campaign," according to the Sacramento Bee, alleged Sher had been "cited for deadly toxic law violations" at his El Dorado County pear farm and featured a picture of a waste pit. The charges were devastating for Sher, an avowed environmentalist. But there was a problem, the Bee reported. "The picture was taken elsewhere and the allegations were false."
As it turned out, the hit piece failed in its mission. Sher beat Shannon, a former policy aide to Governor Pete Wilson, by 55 to 45 percent in the special election to fill a vacant seat. The two faced off again in November, and Sher's victory margin was even bigger, 58 to 38 percent.
But questions about the hit piece lingered. Because of a loophole in state campaign laws allowing a delay in the reporting of donations to so-called independent campaign committees, the source and amount of the money paid for the mailer was not revealed until early August. When the committee behind the mailer finally revealed its financial angels, a shock went through the district. The two main backers were real estate developer and Chargers owner Alex Spanos and Governor Pete Wilson. Spanos had contributed $35,000 and Wilson had given $65,000 from his own political fund. "The amounts and dates of the Wilson and Spanos contributions closely parallel the committee's spending," the Bee concluded in an August investigation of the incident.
"Here's an independent expenditure by the governor for one of his employees, laundered through an independent group so they can do a hit piece," charged Sher's political consultant David Townsend. "It's a way they get around these political campaign limits and it's a way to do these vicious attack pieces without having their name attached to it." Wilson's press office did not respond to requests for comment, and a lawyer for William Sacracino, the Sacramento political consultant who ran the committee with the innocuous-sounding name "Citizens for Responsible Representation," said it was neither Spanos nor Wilson, but Sacracino alone who decided how to spend the committee's money.
The Sher hit piece was not the only bit of political hanky-panky that March. Down in San Diego's 78th Assembly District, ex-city councilman Bruce Henderson was slugging it out with Tricia Hunter, an ex-assemblywoman and Wilson appointee, and lobbyist Scott Harvey in that district's Republican primary. Polls showed a tight race between Henderson and Hunter, until Harvey sent a hit piece attacking Henderson for, among other things, opposing expansion of San Diego's stadium without a public vote.
Similar to the case of the Sher mailer, a $10,000 contribution from Alex Spanos arrived at Harvey headquarters at about the same time as the hit piece went into the mail. Harvey -- who now is affiliated with Sullivan, Wertz, McDade & Wallace, the downtown law firm representing the San Diego International Sports Council in its battle to keep the stadium issue from going to a public vote -- denied knowing of the Spanos money and also denied there was any connection between the mail piece and the contribution. Though the money did not ultimately help Harvey, who placed third, Henderson was subsequently defeated by Hunter, who in turn fell to Democrat Howard Wayne.
Political observers in Sacramento have long admired the stealthy work of Spanos, who has poured millions of dollars into some of the nastiest campaigns around the country, yet managed to remain mostly above the fray. "He, or whoever decides to give his money away, works very closely with the Wilson folks," says one Democratic consultant who has followed Spanos's money for years. "This was a friendship apparently developed when Wilson was mayor of San Diego."
For Wilson, it has been a very lucrative friendship, indeed. In 1994 alone, Spanos gave the governor's reelection campaign $240,000 personally, and the general partnership that owns his football team anted up another $25,000. In all, records show, Spanos has given Wilson's political career more than a million dollars, as well as shaking down the bushes for even more money from his friends and subcontractors. As in the case of the Sher mailer and the Harvey campaign, Spanos has also given to legislative campaigns where Wilson has shown a special interest.
Why is Spanos such a heavy hitter? Some who know him say he enjoys the power of giving. Others claim that much of his money has been motivated by a clear financial interest: the future of the NFL. Indeed, Spanos is not the only NFL owner to give large sums. According to a December 1996 survey conducted by Denver's Rocky Mountain News, nine NFL teams gave a total of $91,000 to congressional candidates in 1996. The reason, the News reported, is that Congress will soon take up proposals to restrict team relocation and to eliminate tax breaks for stadium construction.
Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, founder of the Blockbuster video chain, gave more than $125,000 to the national Republican Party, along with thousands of dollars more in contributions to presidential and congressional candidates. But Republicans were not the only beneficiaries of nfl money.
In all, Democrats got $70,000, compared with $21,000 donated to the GOP. The Philadelphia Eagles alone gave $32,000 to the Democrats. Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer gave $25,000 to Democrats, and the Denver Broncos contributed $16,000. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones contributed $5000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee just four days before the election.
NFL vice president Joe Browne claimed that owners "were being asked by the political parties to contribute in a way they hadn't been asked before... In the last two weeks [of the campaign], both parties were double-teaming and triple-teaming. If asked, we recommend [the owners] participate."
Critics say it's no coincidence that the Broncos and Eagles are especially heavy hitters. Both plan to build new stadiums that could run afoul of any new tax reform laws that cut off the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds used to build locally subsidized stadiums. The bill's sponsor, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has argued that tax-exempt stadiums represent an unfair government subsidy.
Besides advancing his political agenda, Spanos has reaped personal favors from Wilson. In 1994, Wilson appointed Dea Spanos Berberian, one of Spanos's daughters, to a four-year term on the California Arts Council, a non-salaried position. Her occupation was listed as public relations representative for the Chargers. Wilson, however, is not the only political interest to benefit from Spanos's generosity. In San Diego, Spanos, his son Dean, and their spouses have given approximately $10,000 over the last five years to members of the city council, which controls the destiny of the stadium. In addition, Spanos money looms large on the national scene:
In the first six months of 1996 alone, Spanos pumped $335,000 into the coffers of the Republican National Committee to be used as "soft money" in Bob Dole's presidential race, according to the magazine Engineering News Record. The contribution, the 18th largest of the campaign, was also one of the biggest from the nation's construction industry. Unlike contributions to individual candidates, there are no limits on how much "soft money" can be given. The cash may be used for anything from party advertising to fundraising. Critics claim it encourages influence buying.
In March 1996, the state Fair Political Practices Commission staff levied a $60,000 fine against the California Republican Party for failure to report, among other violations, that Spanos had guaranteed a $100,000 loan to the state party.
In August 1996, Spanos spent an estimated $250,000 to host a lavish bash for the New York and California delegations to the Republican National Convention. The event, held at Horton Plaza, featured laser light shows, rock bands, gourmet food, and free coupons for the mall's Victoria's Secret lingerie store. Spanos also acted as a chief fundraiser for Mayor Susan Golding's convention host committee and directly contributed $250,000 to the effort.
In 1994, Spanos gave $50,000 in last-minute cash to bolster the candidacy of Republican Ed Simas, a San Joaquin County supervisor who was running against Democrat Mike Machado for the vacated Stockton assembly seat of Republican Assemblyman Dean Andal. Machado won.
In 1993, Spanos was listed by Common Cause magazine as one of the largest contributors to the "v-pac" Political Action Committee operated by E.J. Bronars on behalf of then-U.S. Senate candidate Oliver North. Bronars had been chairman of North's legal defense fund during North's battle against federal charges stemming from the Iran arms-for-hostages scandal. North was honorary chairman of the pac, which Common Cause said "existed primarily to pay expenses and dole out political favors, thus creating political debts. v-pac's raison d'etre appears to be to further the political career of its honorary chair." North narrowly lost his Virginia senate race to Democrat Charles Robb.
In 1990, Spanos was one of 249 people listed as having provided at least $100,000 to the GOP's "Team 100," operated by then--commerce secretary Robert Mosbacher, who was also chief fundraiser for George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. As reported by the Washington Post, after Bush won the GOP nomination in August 1988, Mosbacher raised more than $25 million to help Bush win the presidency.
In 1982, Spanos gave $6000 to the unsuccessful reelection campaign of Nevada Governor Robert List. The contribution was notable because it came at the same time as another $6000 donation, this one from Frank Sinatra, who received a gambling license earlier in the year despite having been kicked out of Nevada gambling 20 years earlier for associating with underworld figures.
On Tuesday, the city council bowed to a referendum campaign and voted to rescind its so-called $18 million contract amendment with the Chargers rather than put the measure to a public vote. But the council also voted to explore holding a new election on the stadium. If that election is held, many Sacramento observers think Spanos would be called upon to spend as much as $600,000 to convince voters that the stadium expansion is in their best interests. "It would cost at least that much," says one political operative in the state capital familiar with San Diego campaigns. "At least $25,000 for TV production and another $250,000 for a two-week saturation TV [commercial] buy on local stations. Then plug in another $300,000 for direct mail, and you've about got the budget you'll need. He'll hire expert talent from out of town. No need to fool around with the amateurs down there."