When it comes to supporting San Diego's mayoral candidates, the employees at a number of local businesses seem to think alike.
Twenty-four businesses in the county saw four or more of their employees donate to the same candidate in next year's mayoral election. While most companies had at most four or five employees donating to the same candidate, with donation amounts ranging from $25 to the maximum-allowed $500, the employees at one business gave far more.
Seventeen people who work for Bridgepoint Education (NYSE: BPI), the for-profit college company that has been a focus of a U.S. Senate committee hearing and other investigations for its business practices, each donated $500 to California Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher's mayoral campaign, according to campaign disclosure forms covering Jan. 1 to June 30. One person who works for Bridgepoint's subsidiary, Ashford University, also donated $500 to Fletcher.
A dozen other companies, mostly in the construction industry, saw their employees donate to the mayoral campaign of City Councilman Carl DeMaio. Ten companies had four or more employees give to Fletcher's campaign for mayor. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and U.S. Rep. Bob Filner each had four or more supporters at one company. Filner also had strong support from professors at San Diego State University and University of California, San Diego.
Bridgepoint had, by far, the highest number of employees giving to the same candidate, and none of its employees gave to anyone but Fletcher, according to the disclosure forms. Included on the list of Bridgepoint givers are Chief Executive Officer Andrew Clark, eight vice presidents and five others who list their title as "executive." The entire management team listed on Bridgepoint's website each gave the maximum amount to Fletcher.
In addition, seven other members of these employees' households, usually their wives or husbands, also gave $500 each to Fletcher. Double household donations were far more common among Bridgepoint employees than among other companies' donating employees -- only a few employees at other companies also had family members donate to the same candidate. Including these household donations, Bridgepoint employees gave a total of $12,500 to Fletcher's campaign.
The combination of the high number of Bridgepoint employees and their family members making donations and the uniformity of their giving makes Bridgepoint stand out.
While Bridgepoint employees interviewed for this story said their reasons for donating were personal, some owners of local businesses said they gave to help advance the candidate they believed had their business interests in mind. And political experts said donations from a large number of employees are rarely made without some hope of advancing their business's interests. But whatever its reasons, no company in San Diego County saw more of its employees' money go to one candidate than Bridgepoint.
San Diego's campaign contribution rules prevent candidates for city offices from accepting contributions from any type of organization, including businesses. But unless donations are coerced or reimbursed by a company, nothing keeps its employees from donating to the same candidate.
It can be common practice for businesses to encourage their employees to donate to a certain candidate, or at least bring the candidate to speak at the business's office, said Bob Stern, the president of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. And while both businesses and candidates will say the donations have nothing to do with political influence, Stern said he thinks they almost always do.
"Ninety percent of campaign money is given for business purposes," he said. "When employees of a business do it, it's usually a business decision. They think their contributions will be a good investment, because if the candidate is elected, he will look upon them favorably."
James Broyles, the president of the construction firm Pacific Rim Mechanical, which saw nine employees give $2,220 to DeMaio and one employee give $100 to Fletcher, acknowledged that his own business interests led him to personally support DeMaio. The councilmember is fighting project labor agreements, which Broyles said hurt his open-shop contracting business.
Although Broyles said he did not know his employees donated to DeMaio, he was "happy to hear they did that." DeMaio has visited the company's office for campaign fundraiser events and a press conference, where he presented his “Pathway to Prosperity” job plan, and Broyles said his employees' exposure to DeMaio at those events might have spurred their donations to his campaign.
But, Broyles said he does not expect these donations will earn Pacific Rim any special consideration if DeMaio is elected mayor.
"I'm hoping my support will benefit my business because DeMaio will turn around the financial environment of the city," he said. "I don't think $500 buys a whole lot more than that."
Unlike the Bridgepoint donations, Pacific Rim employees' donation amounts varied, with lower-level workers giving between $20 and $25 and upper management giving $500.
A spokeswoman for Fletcher's campaign said the assemblyman hasn't specifically courted Bridgepoint employees, but that because the company is one of the biggest employers in his district, he has met with many of its workers. In May 2010, Fletcher highlighted Bridgepoint Education as a "San Diego Success Story" in a video posted on his website, calling it "a company that's not only focused on higher education, but that is employing a lot of San Diegans." In August, he joined a group of Bridgepoint employees for their lunch-hour workout and posted photos of the event on his mayoral campaign website.
Fletcher's campaign said Fletcher is a "fitness freak" who participates in many group workouts, and reiterated those workouts are not fundraising activities. However, some Bridgepoint employees said these workouts did provide the opportunity for them to meet Fletcher, which encouraged them to contribute to his campaign.
Thomas Ashbrook, the company's senior vice president and chief information officer, said he went to this workout and met Fletcher during other visits he made to Bridgepoint's offices and at charity events.
Ashbrook said these visits allowed him to get to know and like the candidate. He also said he knew other employees had donated to Fletcher's campaign, but did not know who they were.
But, he added he did not think Fletcher's time spent at Bridgepoint influenced the candidate's political decisions.
"If I were to guess, I would say he thinks he has an overall plan that will work in favor of (San Diego)," Ashbrook wrote in an email. "I don't think he thinks in terms of one single company. But that's only a guess."
Ross Woodard, Bridgepoint's senior vice president and chief marketing officer, also said he has met Fletcher and supports him "just because I like him."
"I've had a number of experiences with him, and I felt he had the community’s best interests in mind," Woodard said. "Personally, I like him."
Woodard said he had not talked to his coworkers about donating to Fletcher's campaign, and that his decision to donate was not related to Bridgepoint's business interests.
The 16 other Bridgepoint and Ashford employees who donated to Fletcher's campaign did not respond to emails or phone calls requesting comments for this story. A spokeswoman for Bridgepoint said it was company policy not to comment on personal donations.
Bridgepoint as a company also makes political donations through its political action committee. The PAC gave a combined $14,000 to the congressional campaigns of Brian Bilbray, Susan Davis, Bob Filner, Duncan Hunter and Darrell Issa; $16,000 to last year's "strong mayor" ballot proposition; and $16,000 to this year's "San Diegans for Pension Reform" proposition.
Fletcher's campaign said in a statement that everyone who donated to his campaign is acting as an individual, and Fletcher views them that way.
"The individuals who are employed by Bridgepoint believe Nathan is the best candidate for mayor and support his plan to innovate and create good-paying jobs for San Diegans," the statement said. "The only interest company leaders have in the mayor's race is ensuring a strong, healthy future for the city where they are headquartered."
Other companies also had multiple employees donating to Fletcher, including Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), SDG&E, NuVasive (Nasdaq: NUVA) and Gen-Probe (Nasdaq: GPRO), but not in the same amounts as those at Bridgepoint. The public affairs consulting firm California Strategies saw seven of its employees give a combined $2,850 to Fletcher's campaign, the next highest amount after Bridgepoint. But Jason Kinney, a spokesman for the company, said they are a bipartisan firm whose employees are likely to give to multiple candidates.
Kinney said he is a Democrat but plans to support Fletcher because he likes his history of working across the aisle.
"Nathan's a unique individual to us," Kinney said. "We've been able to watch him up close in San Diego and up here at the state capital, and he's uniquely dedicated. He's a rising star who rises above the parochial, petty politics."
Six employees of Ace Parking donated $1,850 to Fletcher, including the company's owner, Scott Jones, who also gave $500 to DeMaio. Jones called DeMaio "a friend," but gave to Fletcher as well because as a Republican businessman, he thinks both DeMaio and Fletcher have good ideas.
While Jones said he does not vote with his business's interests in mind, he is paying close attention to the Chargers stadium deal and its effect on parking. He also said a fiscally sound city is helpful for any business.
Four or more employees at 12 other local companies also thought alike when making political contributions to DeMaio.
Representatives from Bergelectric, which had six employees give a combined total of $1,450 to DeMaio, and Cass Construction, which had four employees each give DeMaio $500, did not return repeated calls requesting comment.
A few other companies had employees who gave to multiple candidates.
Jason Hughes, the president of the tenant representation firm Hughes Marino, gave $500 to both DeMaio and Fletcher. Hughes' business partner, David Marino, also gave Fletcher $500, while three other Hughes Marino employees each gave DeMaio $250.
Hughes said he's been a longtime supporter of DeMaio and likes him because he does not pander to special interest groups.
"I feel like he's the same as me, because he's going to do what's right regardless of what furthers his political career, or helps him down the road," Hughes said.
DeMaio has spoken at the Hughes Marino offices, but Hughes said he doesn't tell his employees to donate.
"I don't make anyone do anything," he said. "I like him, and I think people respect my decision."
Christine Frahm, an attorney at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, gave $500 to the campaigns of Filner, Fletcher and Dumanis, while another attorney, Christopher Stephens, gave $500 to Filner and Fletcher. Four other attorneys at the firm also gave $500 each to Filner or Fletcher. Several calls to these employees were not returned.
DeMaio said that he does not feel any kind of loyalty to companies whose employees donated to his campaign. [Editor's note: DeMaio did not respond in time for his remarks to appear in our print edition.]
"My loyalty is to the taxpayer and to getting more taxpayer money back into our neighborhoods so that we can fix our streets, keep our libraries and rec centers open and improve emergency services response times," DeMaio said.
Filner did not return requests for comment and a spokesman for Dumanis's campaign said she declined to comment.
Employees of Bridgepoint and other local companies said their donations were made individually and candidates like Fletcher said they were received that way. However, some political analysts said that is not likely the case.
Steve Erie, a political science professor at UCSD, called groups of donations like those from the Bridgepoint employees "bundling" and said these bundles are very often coordinated.
"It's legal, and although it violates the spirit of the law, unfortunately if they can't indict you, they can't stop it," he said.
Erie said Bridgepoint employees likely made their donations with hopes of influencing political decisions, although they will not admit it.
"It's very difficult to find hard evidence of quid pro quo, very difficult to prove that kind of stuff, because it's never put on paper and is all done with a wink and a nod," he said. "But this is the grease that oils the American political system, from the federal to local government.
"Whenever there are contribution limits, people will always find a way to get around them."