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San Diego airport authority spends $4.2 million to persuade us to move Lindbergh Field

Leavin' on a jet plane

The airport authority insists that its campaign plan is simply to "educate and inform" voters.
  • The airport authority insists that its campaign plan is simply to "educate and inform" voters.
  • Image by Derek Plank

The state law that created the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority says nothing about hiring a small army of pollsters, political consultants, and public relations people to sell voters on moving the airport. That, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, would be wrong. Such expenditures, call a "gift of public funds," would be nothing short of illegal.

Lou Conde - the authority's severest public critic

Lou Conde - the authority's severest public critic

The law does require the airport authority, which took over ownership and operation of Lindbergh Field from the port district on January 1, 2003, to "review all options of alternative sites, including, but not limited to, expansion of the existing airport site" and to submit its recommendation to the voters by November 7, 2006. The authority may educate voters about their choices in the matter, but not overtly campaign for the project.

But some local political consultants and others, critical of the way the airport authority has been doling out is contracts, say that's exactly what's being quietly engineered these days at the agency's well-furnished headquarters upstairs from the commuter terminal at Lindbergh Field.

Bruce Henderson: "The PR campaign that has been conducted seems to have crossed the line to political advocacy."

Bruce Henderson: "The PR campaign that has been conducted seems to have crossed the line to political advocacy."

According to records obtained from the airport authority under the California Public Records Act, contracts totaling at least $4.2 million have been signed with public relations consultants, lobbyists, and pollsters. Though the agency disputes it, the critics contend that much of that public money is being poured into a hardball, take-no-prisoners campaign plan to combat stiff resistance among the citizenry to the controversial notion of moving Lindbergh Field. The plan, they say includes keeping tabs on citizens who oppose the agency's political agenda and working with those who favor it.

Thella Bowens proudly pointed to the poll's key finding: that public support for building a new airport jumped from 42 to 49 percent after the authority distributed more than a million glossy newspaper inserts.

Thella Bowens proudly pointed to the poll's key finding: that public support for building a new airport jumped from 42 to 49 percent after the authority distributed more than a million glossy newspaper inserts.

The authority insists that its campaign plan is simply to "educate and inform" voters. But many of the consultants boast long records of fighting community opposition to development projects. They also advertise their long-standing contacts with local reporters and editorial writers -- known in the campaign business as "free media"-- who are at times wined and dined with funds provided by project sponsors. Sometimes, according to their airport authority contracts, the largely under-the-radar consultants even write the stories and editorials themselves.

Lindbergh Field

Lindbergh Field

Critics argue that such activity goes far beyond informing and educating the public and that spending the taxpayers' money to gather intelligence about the authority's political foes may even violate state privacy laws.

"The airport authority is charged by law with making a recommendation on a site for a new regional airport," says Bruce Henderson, "but only after an exhaustive review. These contracts suggest the members of the authority have already reached their decision well before the end of that process." Henderson, an attorney, has been monitoring the authority with former San Diego county supervisor Lou Conde, perhaps the authority's severest public critic.

Inaugural airport authority board

Inaugural airport authority board

"For example," continues Henderson, "the authority appears to have already excluded upgrades to Lindbergh Field. When did they do that, and were key decisions made without public hearings? Already the authority is entering into contracts with political consultants to push conclusions -- not educators to assist the public in participating in the process and to assist the public in ultimately, at the ballot box, making an informed decision. If the public was excluded from meetings in which key decisions were made narrowing down possible sites, that would be a violation of the Brown Act."

Airport authority chairman Joe Craver is a Murphy supporter.

Airport authority chairman Joe Craver is a Murphy supporter.

A violation of the Brown Act is one concern; an illegal political campaign is another. If a public agency were to spend public money on a political campaign, those expenditures would represent a gift of public funds to the private interests organizing the campaign.

"Already, the PR campaign that has been conducted seems to have crossed the line to political advocacy," Henderson says. "But the authority was not created to advocate; it was created to educate and to recommend a possible solution -- but only if there is a true problem, that is, a true need for a new airport. If the board members broke the law, it may be a matter for the grand jury to look into."

Shepard's firm, Tom Shepard and Associates, specializes in staging made-to-order "grassroots" events.

Shepard's firm, Tom Shepard and Associates, specializes in staging made-to-order "grassroots" events.

An example of the authority's public relations strategy was on display last Thursday. At a news conference, the authority announced the results of a $35,000 poll of 1600 San Diego County registered voters. After declaring that the airport authority's site-selection process was "transparent" and "educational" in nature, CEO Thella Bowens proudly pointed to the poll's key finding: that public support for building a new airport jumped from 42 to 49 percent after the authority distributed more than a million glossy newspaper inserts headlined "Fly into the Future." According to the poll, opposition to a new airport fell from 35 to 27 percent after the brochures hit.

"The more people are given good valid data, the better decisions they are able to make," Bowens concluded. Pollster Skip Hull, of CIC Research, Inc., added that the survey was important in finding out whether the agency's efforts were "effective with voters...in terms of swaying their opinions and making them understand the need for a new airport."

One of the airport authority's highest-paid consultants is GCS-PR, LLC, a San Diego-based public relations and political consulting outfit deeply rooted in county politics and real-estate-development advocacy campaigns.

GCS is run by Tom Gable, a former financial editor with the now-defunct San Diego Evening Tribune. Gable left the paper in the 1970s to go into the public relations business. Twenty-five years later, in 2001, he shut down his company, the Gable Group, saying that the burst of the dot-com bubble had done him in. Along with two former Gable Group executives, Rick Cook and Jon Schmid, Gable then set up GCS. According to its website, one of the firm's specialties is countering public opposition to big development projects.

"The North County Transit District...found itself facing last-minute opposition to the construction of two critical stations on the route," says one "case study" on the GCS website. "Aggressive media relations immediately balanced what had been a negative story, and contact with editorial boards took the battle to the opinion pages."

In another case, involving a mammoth residential subdivision in North City, "Tom Gable, who had led complex programs for Pardee on previous land use issues, was retained to assist in the passage of a controversial development in San Diego called Pacific Highlands Ranch....

"The agency developed speeches and materials for public presentations and on-air debates, news releases and editorial board pitches for the media." The resulting campaign, according to GCS, "succeeded in winning the support of virtually all of San Diego's major media, including the San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial board. On Nov. 3, Proposition M passed with 53 percent of the vote."

In a third PR battle touted on its website, GCS was retained by U.S. avocado growers who were attempting to halt the lifting of a federal ban on imports of Mexican avocados. "The media relations push included a series of press releases, media alerts, advertising, pitch letters and one-on-one phone contacts and interviews.

"Key tactics included turning out 1,500 growers at the USDA's two-day hearing and a major rally attended by more than 25 media, including the Associated Press, CNN, The San Diego Union-Tribune, San Diego Business Journal, San Diego Daily Transcript, Santa Barbara News Press and four local television stations (three networks and one independent)."

According to its contract with the airport authority, signed in November of last year, GCS is to receive a maximum of $2,225,000 over a three-year period from June 2004 through June 2007. Gable's services are billed at $240 an hour; his partners Cook and Schmid each make $200 an hour.

Among other tasks, the contract requires the agency to "write articles for local and trade publications" and "create digital videos" to "explain the need for increasing the commercial air transportation system capacity to meet economic growth."

An attachment to the contract calls for GCS to recruit supporters of the authority's position from the ranks of local reporters. That part of the effort, the contract says, is "aimed to establish and foster media relationships on the Authority's behalf, as well as encourage and promote media buy-in and positive press coverage for site selection issues."

The contract's "scope of work" says that GCS will "develop coalition and outreach strategies to organize and mobilize the business, economic and political interests regarding the Airport Site Selection Program."

Beginning this month, the GCS contract says, public relations workers will fan out to more than 30 "ethnic community street fairs and festivals" across the county, pitching the airport authority's message. Venues are to include the Gay Pride Festival, Cabrillo Festival, Ocean Beach Street Fair, Fiestas Patrias, UCSD Multicultural Festival, and Little Italy's ArtWalk.

And the contract goes further. The "Airport Site Selection Program --Work Program," a document attached to the GCS contract, says the consultant will assemble a group of what it calls "Friends." The program calls for "identification and approaching of potential 'Friends'; 'Friends' communications, mailings; and 'Friends' meetings."

Though the contract is carefully couched in legalese and bureaucratese, its point is hard to miss.

"Coalition and outreach strategies are an integral program component aimed at boosting community, business and legislative support for the site selection process and referenda."

"Included in this outreach are identifying influentials, developing and maintaining the coalition as well as opposition databases, organizing and mobilizing businesses, coordinating with ASAP21 and similar groups, developing and implementing the Pilots program, maintaining regular communications briefings as well as scheduling and facilitating coalition meetings."

When asked during a recent telephone interview about the "opposition database" mentioned in his firm's contract, Gable said, "There's going to be a debate. You have a roster of people on your side, and you have a roster of people on the other side." He insisted that it appeared more sinister than it was. "You want to know who the people on the other side are, what their names are, are their arguments logical, are they making sense, where they are coming from.

"The opposition database is just gathering information, that's all," according to Gable. "It's just clips, letters to the editor, public records. It's just used as background. It's kind of like what you do in preparing an environmental impact report: you go around gathering up all the data." Asked if it was the airport authority's role to track opposition to a new airport with a ballot measure pending, Gable said, "No, that's our role. I would assume that somebody out there on the other side is doing the same."

Gable, who made it clear he personally favors a new airport, pointed out that his firm was also putting together a database of those who support getting rid of the existing airport and building a new one. "There are a lot of those kind of people. They are sick and tired of waiting for a new airport."

To the question of whether he viewed his assignment as helping the airport authority promote construction of a new or expanded airport, Gable first answered, "Yes." After being asked further about whether it was legitimate for a public agency to pay for such advocacy, he said, "I would withdraw that straightforward yes and cite to you from Exhibit A, Article 1-A of our scope of work: Our job is to provide effective public awareness, understanding and support of the airport planning and site selection processes."

Regarding his assignment to work closely with ASAP21, a pro-airport relocation group, Gable said his firm would eventually provide the same kind of liaison to groups against the expansion plans but that those opponents had yet to be identified.

ASAP21, short for Alliance in Support of Airport Progress in the 21st Century, was organized by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and others to lead the push for a new airport. According to the group's website, "San Diego must have a new, world class, environmentally sound, international airport to ensure the continued growth of the regional economy in San Diego County." The website goes on to say, "ASAP21 is a political advocacy organization; it is not a planning organization."

The GCS work program for the airport authority contains a list of activities that Gable's firm will perform in conjunction with ASAP21. These are described as "communications team liaison with ASAP21; community events, meetings in collaboration with ASAP21"; and private "Site selection briefings with ASAP21." Conde says this liaison between the public agency and the private political advocacy organization is incontrovertible evidence that the authority has exceeded its bounds.

In a telephone interview last week, ASAP21 president John Chalker said that his group operates with a modest $30,000 yearly budget. "We don't need a lot of money. This is just getting out and talking to people, writing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces." To keep costs down, he said, the organization relies heavily on what he described as the "volunteer" services of two public relations consultants who work for free.

According to Chalker, speakers sent out to promote ASAP21's cause are booked through MJE Marketing Services, run by Marlee J. Ehrenfeld. She is a former Union-Tribune reporter married to U-T science writer Scott LaFee. "She helps us on a pro bono basis, putting our PR strategy together and also setting up some of the meetings for us," Chalker said. "I think she's very good at it."

MJE Marketing also does promotional work for Chalker's company, LM Capital Group, LLC, which describes itself in news releases as "a San Diego-based independent investment advisory firm."

Another public relations advisor that ASAP21 uses, Chalker said, is Peter J. MacCracken. "Peter's another one of the consultants who does pro bono work for us, providing us with communications strategy." According to Chalker, both advisors are furnishing their services free of charge to the group because "they are interested in seeing this issue move forward. They recognize that enough studies have been made, and it's time to move on to build a new airport. They support our agenda."

Chalker said that ASAP21 doesn't anticipate paying either of the two consultants, at least not until the campaign for the new airport begins in earnest in the months before the November 2006 ballot. Whether to pay for the continuing services of Ehrenfeld, MacCracken, or both "would be something to determine when we actually set up the campaign committee."

Whether by coincidence or not, both Ehrenfeld and MacCracken also have obtained lucrative public relations contracts from the airport authority. Critics argue that the "pro bono" arrangement between ASAP21 and the two consultants makes it difficult to determine where their paid "education and outreach" role with the airport authority leaves off and their advocacy work for ASAP21 begins.

MJE was recently awarded a $350,000 increase to its original $903,000 contract with the authority, bringing the value of the deal to more than $1.2 million through September of this year. The justification for the boost in MJE's compensation, an airport authority staff report says, is that "the magnitude of work and the volume of projects required for an effective and comprehensive marketing and communications program outpaced the maximum dollar limit of the contract."

ASAP21's other volunteer consultant, Peter J. MacCracken, is the principal at PJM Strategies, which has been paid at least $86,506 by the airport authority. A San Diego public relations veteran, MacCracken has been tasked by the authority to "manage" news coverage to the authority's advantage, while keeping behind the scenes.

An oenophile with an extensive personal wine collection, according to a filing in his 2004 divorce case, MacCracken is known in political and PR circles as a sophisticated operator. Anecdotes describing PJM's public relations successes are presented on the company's website. One describes a fight last year between the airport board and the San Diego Port Commission, which previously operated Lindbergh Field.

"At issue was how much money was going to be turned over along with the airport; the two sides were nearly $120 million apart. Neither entity preferred to have the monetary dispute go public. However, the Authority determined it might be advantageous to proactively tell the story to win support."

"We helped manage a highly focused media and community relations campaign," the website says. "Calls to community opinion leaders preceded conversations with the media. We helped manage the ongoing story prior to the airport's transfer, making the Authority's case."

The resulting coverage, according to PJM, was "advantageous to the Authority, as was an editorial. Ultimately, the Airport Authority got the $125 million it had been seeking."

PJM swung into action again last summer when state assemblyman George Plescia, of the 75th District, in North County, introduced a bill to postpone the airport vote for one year.

According to its website, PJM "helped obtain an important editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune and conducted other media and community relations efforts to successfully defeat potential legislation to delay a county-wide vote on a new airport for San Diego."

Prior to PJM's gig with the airport authority, it worked for the Port of San Diego. One of the firm's assignments was handling negative fallout from a major cost overrun on an airport construction contract that resulted in millions of dollars of additional public spending.

"We were brought in to turn around perceptions of the situation," the website says. To do so, the firm says, it concocted "the concept of a 'megaproject,' which naturally increases in scope, takes longer than planned and often requires additional budget.

"We used that explanatory concept for all media relations, and worked behind the scenes with the Port to coordinate media and communications strategy."

According to PJM, its "megaproject" invention went over better than expected. "The concept received great media play, contentiousness was kept behind the scenes, and the expansion was cited by The San Diego Union-Tribune as '...the design standard for any new airport additions.' "

PJM also boasts that it was employed by SeaWorld to make sure its aggressive expansion plans remained on track despite fierce public opposition. "We authored and placed op-eds, obtained many other editorial endorsements, [and] recruited community group and community leader support," says the website.

SeaWorld vice president J. Dennis Burks is quoted as saying that MacCracken "was pivotal in securing positive editorials from The San Diego Union-Tribune and other media. Peter's contacts in the San Diego community were extremely helpful." Burks, now retired, is chairman of ASAP21.

MacCracken is no doubt a key member of the airport authority's public relations team. But by far the biggest political gun that the agency has recruited is Tom Shepard, onetime aide to fallen mayor Roger Hedgecock.

After Shepard pleaded guilty to one count of state charges related to political money laundering in Hedgecock's political corruption case and performed community service in 1986, he resumed political consulting.

Shepard's clients have included local political luminaries like Sheriff Bill Kolender and county supervisor Ron Roberts, though Shepard's relationship with Roberts was reportedly put on hiatus after Shepard's firm signed up with the airport authority. Airport authority chairman Joe Craver is a Mayor Murphy supporter.

Shepard's firm, Tom Shepard and Associates, specializes in staging made-to-order "grassroots" events, known to cynics in the PR business as "astroturfing." For John Moores, the Padres owner who was seeking voter approval of a taxpayer-financed stadium downtown in 2000, Shepard went so far as to set up a sweepstakes, with the objective of collecting the names of the thousands of entrants and advertising them as "supporters" of the project.

"We created and organized a contest that awarded 18 all-expense-paid trips to Baltimore, Cleveland, [and] Denver to tour their ballparks," according to Shepard's website. "The goals of the contest were twofold: to secure names of ballpark supporters and to obtain media coverage of other successful ballpark redevelopment projects."

Another Shepard specialty is schmoozing with reporters. According to his website, Shepard's Public Policy Strategies division was employed in 2000 by oil giant Conoco, which was trying to build a controversial liquefied natural gas terminal on the Mexican coast south of Tijuana.

"Opponents of the project had already campaigned effectively against the project, raising safety, pollution and other concerns among area residents and elected officials," according to Shepard's website. "We...became involved with the Rosarito Press Club to begin establishing relationships with key reporters."

According to an October 8, 2004, contract between Tom Shepard and Associates and the airport authority, Shepard is to "provide expertise, insight and strategic counsel on policy and planning issues that may impact the authority." The firm is being paid $8000 a month, for a maximum of $224,000 through December 5, 2005.

Shepard's duties include furnishing "strategic counsel to enhance the Authority's reputation and credibility" and "building relationships with the region's business leadership and elected officials." Shepard will also "conduct 'sounding' conversations" with "elected officials, business and civic leaders, editors and reporters," as well as "coordinate editorial board meetings and interviews."

An earlier agreement, signed in April 2004, under which the firm made $195 an hour, called for Shepard to "maintain channels of communications with key editors, reporters," "draft message strategies," "develop media strategies," and conduct something cryptically described as "follow-up activities to maximize positive outcomes."

What is Shepard really up to? Based on his record, critics of the authority suspect that he is assembling a secret strategy and stealth political team that will kick into action in the months leading up to the November 7 vote.

He has plenty of experience: back in 1998, Shepard -- then running his operation from the offices of the now-defunct San Diego-based public relations firm Stoorza, Ziegaus & Metzger -- was hired by Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, a political committee working to defeat Orange County's plan to move John Wayne Airport to the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. His first task was to put together an anti-airport initiative for the Orange County ballot.

"There is majority opposition to conversion of El Toro into an international airport," Shepard told reporters in January 1998. Measure F, the proposition that ultimately found its way onto the ballot in March 2000, was called by its sponsors the Safe and Healthy Communities Act. It required a public vote before any new airports or jails could be built in the county and was easily passed, marking the beginning of the end for conversion of El Toro into a commercial airport. In 2003, Orange County voters passed Measure W, which downzoned much of the abandoned air base to open space and parkland.

In San Diego, Shepard is on the other side of the issue. According to the law that established San Diego's airport authority, it is "the only agency, public or private, in the County of San Diego that is eligible to take ownership of airports owned by the United States government and are declared surplus or are otherwise made available to state or local governmental agencies."

Shepard has long-standing ties to Bob Meadow, a well-known pollster. Like Shepard, Meadow got his introduction to the rougher side of San Diego politics during Roger Hedgecock's mayoral campaign of 1983 against Maureen O'Connor. The two have worked together ever since on an array of campaigns.

According to its website, Meadow's firm, Decision Research, "is a Democratic national public opinion research firm, with offices in Washington, D.C. and San Diego, California. We have earned our reputation by retaining tough-to-hold Democratic seats, knocking off Republican incumbents, winning open seats, and taking on difficult and controversial ballot initiative campaigns." Meadow's senior partner is Heidi von Szeliski, who last year ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic assembly primary won by Lori Saldaña.

Decision Research received a $50,000 contract from the airport authority last year: $20,000 to set up "focus groups" and $30,000 to conduct a voter survey. Each focus group participant was to be paid $75 for a two-hour-maximum session.

In addition to firms owned by Ehrenfeld, MacCracken, Gable, Shepard, and Meadow, the firm of Hamilton, Rabinovitz of Los Angeles works for the authority. Although its $400,000 contract doesn't come right out and say so, critics contend that Hamilton, Rabinovitz is being paid to drum up support for airport relocation or expansion.

According to that firm's agreement with the authority, it will conduct "an effective public outreach and education program" designed "to convey to stakeholders throughout the region the important role San Diego International Airport plays in the economy.

"Achieving broad understanding of the importance of the airport -- not just as a means to travel in and out of San Diego, but as an economic engine in and of itself -- will help build support for the parallel airport planning and site selection process."

As part of the firm's mission, Hamilton, Rabinovitz staffers are set to make "up to 50 presentations" to "shareholder groups throughout the region." They will also conduct "up to five community meetings" to "allow people from throughout the region to hear first hand about the report."

"To provide a more qualitative assessment of what it means to the region if it cannot, or chooses not to, meet full demand for air transportation services," the contract adds, "Consultant shall assemble opinion from a sample of existing businesses and institutions who rely on air transportation to one degree or another."

San Diego attorney Bruce Henderson says that it's important to know whether the airport authority's in-house counsel has provided any guidance to the authority board regarding its contracting activities. "If members of the authority got bad advice from their counsel, acted improperly, and have embarked on an illegal political campaign for a new airport, then it may also be time to go back to the state legislature, restart the entire process, and, of course, postpone the proposed election," Henderson says.

Asked recently to provide a roster of the legal opinions he has authored for the San Diego airport board, the authority's chief counsel Breton K. Lobner said that he did not maintain such a list; he claimed attorney-client privilege when asked under the state's Public Records Act to provide copies of the advice letters themselves.

"The legal memoranda, advice and opinions prepared by this office have been for the sole use of the Airport Authority," Lobner wrote in his letter of denial, dated January 25. "Copies have only been distributed to those with a need to know within the Authority."

Lobner is a former supervising city attorney at Los Angeles World Airports. He says he left that position in the summer of 2002 to take a similar job at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Lobner was hired by the San Diego airport authority in July 2003, just as a scandal began to break at LAX.

That year, an airport contractor complained that a member of the airport commission had pressured him to make contributions to Mayor James Hahn's campaign committee as a condition of being awarded contracts. Initially the commission's chairman, Ted Stein, denied any wrongdoing, but last April he resigned. A deputy mayor, Troy Edwards, was both Hahn's campaign fund-raiser and the liaison between Hahn's office and the airport commission. Edwards resigned as well, after being called to testify before a grand jury.

The now-18-month-old investigations by both federal prosecutors and the L.A. district attorney have widened to include the Department of Water and Power and the Port of Los Angeles. Prosecutors allege that the giant public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard conspired to overbill the Department of Water and Power and the Port of Los Angeles for public relations services. Earlier this month, John Stodder Jr., a former executive with Fleishman-Hillard, entered a not-guilty plea to 11 federal counts of wire fraud in connection with the case.

Hahn opponents have charged that the big PR firm billed the taxpayer-owned utility for work it did to promote Hahn. The mayor has denied the accusations.

Reached at his office by phone last week, Lobner said he had never talked to investigators or testified before a grand jury in connection with the scandal in Los Angeles and had no specific knowledge of the activities of Stein and Edwards while he served as counsel to the airport. "They did their own thing," he said. "Ted Stein was not good for the City of Los Angeles."

Lobner added that while at the Department of Water and Power he took a dim view of the Fleishman-Hillard contract. "I knew about it. I didn't like it. I didn't know what they were doing for Jim Hahn. I raised a hue and cry about the high hourly rate. I think some of those folks were in the $500 range."

Asked whether the hourly fee of $240 called for in public relations consultant Tom Gable's agreement with the San Diego airport authority was appropriate, Lobner said probably, although he said he was not specifically vetting San Diego's contracts. "When I came down here, it was a wonderful opportunity to leave that stuff behind."

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