The hidden donors for San Diego mayor Dick Murphy

"I'm not retired"

John C. Funk, a Harvard-educated environmental law attorney with the law firm of Weston, Benshoof, Rochefort, Rubalcava MacCuish in Los Angeles, represents some of the biggest companies in California, including the ubiquitous Allied Waste, the trash hauler that runs the controversial Sycamore Canyon landfill in San Diego.

Befitting his position, Funk is a veteran contributor to the campaigns of local officials throughout the state. "I know the laws very well," he laughs during a telephone interview from his downtown offices. "I'm a pro."

Thus, Funk was surprised to learn that his occupation had been listed as "retired" on the latest campaign-fundraising report filed by Mayor Dick Murphy. "I don't know how they got that idea," he laughs. "That's a mistake. I'm a practicing attorney, certainly." Funk says he mailed his $250 October contribution to the Murphy campaign, though he doesn't specifically remember whether he filled out a form that required him to state his profession, as required by law. "I'm assuming I did. I never would have said I was 'retired.' "

Funk was not alone. The Murphy campaign's post-election filing, which includes contributions from October 22 to December 31, 2000, reports that 65 donors were "retired." Yet many of those contributors, a search of public records reveals, were actually business owners, real estate investors, or otherwise employed full-time. One group of donors, all of whom were listed by the Murphy camp as "retired," are associated with a New Jersey development company once sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly refusing to rent to black tenants.

Murphy chief of staff John Kern, who was the mayor's chief campaign consultant last year, referred all questions about the apparent reporting discrepancies to William R. Baber, the Murphy campaign's treasurer. Baber, a La Mesa attorney, now serves as the consultant to the city council rules committee, to which Murphy appointed him.

"Some of these, you know, if they write 'retired,' I don't follow up to see if they are telling the truth," Baber says. "It's only a reasonable diligence I can give to some of these. Look, I'm not saying I didn't goof. I've done so many of these, I'm experienced enough to know I can make a mistake.

"It's somewhat of a more art than science. Someone will write 'semi-retired investor'; now what the hell does that mean? I don't know. But I'm assuming if you're semi-retired, you're retired. And what's an investor? If somebody wrote 'semi-retired investor,' I would usually put 'retired.' Or somebody puts 'of counsel,' which is the legal term for old attorneys, retired, I would put 'retired'. And, obviously, if they put 'retired.' But if they put 'developer,' I would never put 'retired.' "

The occupational discrepancies also raise questions about whether any of the misidentified contributors were reimbursed by others. If so, that would be a violation of the city ordinance against laundering of campaign contributions by corporations. Over the years the city has faced six major scandals as large corporations such as Cox Communications were forced to pay large fines when they were caught money-laundering.

Some of the so-called "retirees" have famous names, such as Donald Bren, the Irvine Ranch developer with large real estate holdings in San Diego, who appears annually on Forbes magazine's richest list with a fortune of $4 billion. Others, such as Orange County's Gary Hunt, who until January worked for Bren, are well-known in the closely interlocking world of California politics and lobbying. Bren and Hunt each gave Murphy the $250 maximum contribution for the primary and general elections.

Another donor is Terrance Caster from El Cajon. Although identified on the Murphy report as "retired," records show that Caster is associated with a string of storage-warehouse operations called A-1 Self Storage and is involved in numerous other real estate activities around San Diego County. His work on behalf of an orphanage in Tijuana has been written up by the Union-Tribune. A financing statement from last year pegs his net worth at $66 million and says he has an annual income of $9.2 million. Telephone calls left at his office were not returned.

Another locally famous name listed as "retired" is Karen McElliott, chairwoman of the city's Qualcomm Stadium board of directors and a failed District 5 city council candidate. A former planning commissioner who was repeatedly identified during her council campaign as a "businesswoman," McElliott owns an interest in a chain of nursing homes as well as various San Diego real estate developments and is listed in state corporate records as president of R and K Development.

Downtown developer James McMillan, who's listed at the Eighth Avenue offices of OliverMcMillan, is also said to be "retired." M.T. McMillan, of the same address, is similarly listed. Yet other "retirees" are Stephen Jensen of Ramona, who works for a soils-testing outfit called SCST, and Ramona's David Krauth, employed by the transportation engineering firm of Linscott, Law, and Greenspan. Others listed as retired, such as Glenn and Penelope MacKenzie of Grass Valley, California, could not be reached to confirm their status.

Perhaps the most intriguing group of "retirees" listed by the Murphy campaign is connected with Garden Communities, a large residential and shopping-center development company based in New Jersey. Based on a review of public records, six Murphy donors listed as retired are actually owners of the firm or have active business associations with it. They include Joseph Wilf of Hillside, New Jersey; Leonard Wilf of Short Hills, New Jersey; Zygmunt Wilf of Springfield, New Jersey; Scott Loventhal of Livingston, New Jersey; Mario Dudzinski of Pinebrook, New Jersey; and Joseph Korn of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Stuart B. Posnock of San Diego is listed by the Murphy campaign as president of Garden Communities. In all, the Garden Communities-related donors gave Murphy $1750. The same donors also contributed to the campaign of city councilmen Brian Maienschein and Scott Peters.

Repeated calls to Garden Communities offices in both San Diego and New Jersey went unreturned. Joseph Wilf was contacted by telephone at his home in New Jersey. Asked why he was interested in San Diego politics, Wilf responded: "My interest? Actually, I am not used to giving interviews on the telephone. It's kind of unusual. Our name is known in the San Diego area. Why should I respond on the phone? I have no information. My contribution was a few hundred dollars."

Questioned about whether he and his family were trying to influence an action by the city council, Wilf replied. "Of course not. I'm involved in different things, but again, I cannot respond on the phone if somebody calls me up. My contribution is mine. I don't think this is necessary. It's only a few hundred dollars. I don't want to hear any assumptions. I won't respond no matter how many times you ask me. I think the conversation went far enough. I'm going to finish the conversation right now. I don't want to speak to you anymore."

Joseph Korn, another Murphy donor listed as retired, was even more reticent during a telephone interview from his Basking Ridge, New Jersey home. Asked why he had given multiple contributions to Murphy and the two city council members and whether he had been reimbursed, Korn replied, "I'm involved in the election process, why? Can I ask why you are calling me?" Told that public records indicated that he was employed by the Wilf family, Korn said, "I appreciate you calling, thanks for calling," and hung up the phone.

Mario Dudzinski, also interviewed by telephone from New Jersey, confirmed that he is employed by a development company in that state and has traveled to San Diego on business. He would not discuss his relationship with the Wilf family. He denied that he had been reimbursed. "I'm very civic-minded, just leave it at that," Dudzinski said.

In July 1998, according to an account in the Union-Tribune, Garden Communities was building 617-unit residential complex Called Costa Village South in University City. The firm also was preparing to build a related development, 640-unit Costa Verde Village North, and had recently opened Del Mar Ridge, with 180 units.

Public records show that companies related to the Wilf family own millions of dollars of real estate in San Diego. Wilf-related entities include Costa Verde Hotel, LLC La Jolla Canyon Gardens, Pacific Bay Gardens, La Jolla Crossroads, Cape La Jolla Gardens, Torrey Ranch, DMG Associates, 820 Associates, and Villa La Jolla Gardens.

Last June, the trade publication Shopping Center World profiled the Wilf family and their development empire, based in Short Hills, New Jersey. "The Garden Commercial story begins in the early 1950s with Harry and Joseph Wilf, brothers who emigrated from Poland to the United States shortly after the end of World War II.

"After a stint running a used-car business in Brooklyn, the two Polish immigrants shifted their focus to apartment rentals. Enjoying success in this endeavor, the pair expanded their scope and parlayed the profits from the apartment-rental business into the creation of Garden Homes, a development firm specializing in single-family dwellings.

"Shortly thereafter, Garden Homes moved into the business of developing apartment homes."

According to the magazine, Leonard Wilf, son of Harry, is actively involved in the company business, as is his son, Orin. Joseph's son Mark is also a principal in the firm. The magazine quotes Orin as saying, "We now own close to 30,000 units, mostly in New York and New Jersey, but also in Florida, Arizona, California, and Israel." In 1997, Leonard was named by President Bill Clinton to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

"We're not into mega-malls," Orin told the magazine. Rather, "we develop retail shopping centers that serve the basic needs of the surrounding community."

Currently, according to the magazine, the family owns almost a hundred retail properties.

"Our specialty over time has been the grocery or department store-anchored strip center," Orin Wilf was quoted as saying. "We have done a lot of centers anchored by Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe's, and Linens 'n' Things," he says, "as well as just about every supermarket active in New Jersey."

"We don't foresee going public -- we like being private," Wilf told the magazine. "Our commercial division has individuals who do acquisition, development, leasing, construction, and management, which enables us to carry out all of these activities on an in-house basis. Our oversight of all the processes is tight, which usually enables us to bring projects to fruition at a lower cost than our competitors, and gives us an advantage in the marketplace."

"Replicating our success is neither a predictable science nor smoke-and-mirrors magic," Zygmunt Wilf, another family member active in the business, told the magazine. "It's the result of skill acquired over time, and only after gaining vast experience in the market. It presumes a mastery of our industry, along with a reputation for stability and integrity that, taken together, have become the cornerstone in our ability to attract strong anchor stores and successful tenants to our projects.

"It is the Garden Commercial way of doing both business and life," he says, "which we hope to pass on to our children."

But the news has not always been so good for the Wilfs and their family business. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was suing Garden Homes Management, Corp.; Westbound Homes, Inc.; Redstone Garden Apartments, Inc.; Joseph Wilf; and Cathy Rosenstein for allegedly refusing to rent to African-Americans. According to the government's allegations, contained in a June 21, 1999, news release, the defendants were caught by a sting during which "trained pairs of African-American and white testers pose as prospective tenants and inquire about the availability of rental units."

The federal lawsuit sought "an order preventing Garden Homes Management and the owners of the three complexes from engaging in further discriminatory practices and requiring the defendants to pay damages to any individuals identified as victims of the discrimination." Federal officials could not immediately ascertain the fate of their lawsuit, and neither the Wilf family nor its companies returned phone calls seeking comment on the allegations.

One of the Wilf family's newest San Diego shopping centers is planned for a site in a five-acre PUD (planned unit development) near Costa Verde, near University City, according to information on the Garden Commercial website (www.gardencommercial.com). The population within a five-mile radius of the site currently totals 182,401, according to the site, with an average household income of $72,802

Records show that many of the San Diego Wilf-related partnerships and corporations are registered at the office of Brian Seltzer, the well-connected downtown attorney who is former president of the city's convention-center corporation. Among the clients of Seltzer and his firm, Seltzer Caplan, Wilkins and McMahon, are Qualcomm and developers such as Peter Janopaul (recently appointed by Mayor Murphy to the commission of the San Diego Unified Port District) and McMillin Communities.

Last year, James Dawe, an attorney at the firm, lobbied on behalf of RNLN, Inc., a real estate investment enterprise, in a controversial condemnation action involving an effort by the San Diego Unified School District to obtain land for a food-processing center. At the time, Julie Dubick, a member of the Seltzer firm, was running for school board against incumbent Frances O'Neill Zimmerman.

City and state laws require that the occupation of all contributors be accurately stated, and if mistakes have been made in the filing of the reports, they must be amended to reflect the corrections. Murphy campaign treasurer Baber says he is considering his next move. "I'm trying to figure out, should I go back and look through all 200 of them and match up, make sure I got everyone. Is that what you want me to do?"

Baber then terminated the interview after he requested that the entire conversation be put off the record.

Epilogue:

A 16-page amendment to Murphy's campaign-disclosure statement, dated March 10, 2001, a week after Baber was interviewed for this story, was filed by Mayor Murphy on March 12 with the city clerk's office. The filing contained the following corrections to the occupations of the following donors Murphy had previously identified as "retired": Donald Bren, chairman, the Irvine Co.; Terrance Caster, owner, Caster Enterprises; Mario Dudzinski, regional manager, Regents at Scottsdale; John Funk, attorney, Weston Benshoof et. al.; Xingli Gan, homemaker; Gary Hunt, executive vice president, Irvine Co.; Stephen Jensen, vice president, Southern California Soils and Testing; Joseph Korn, project manager, Garden Homes; David Krauth, transportation engineer, Linscott, Law & Greenspan; Scott Loventhal, attorney, Wilf & Silverman; James McMillan, president, Oliver McMillan Co.; Mrs. Charles Walker, homemaker; Joseph Wilf, apartment developer, Durham Woods; Leonard Wilf, real estate developer, Encino Palms; and Zygmunt Wilf, real estate developer, Garden Homes.

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