Over the past 18 months, retail giant Wal-Mart and a charity funded by the company's founding family have poured contributions into nonprofit organizations affiliated with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and Councilman Jay Schenirer at unprecedented levels.
The Sacramento City Council has at the same time been weighing whether to relax restrictions on big-box stores, a move that would greatly benefit retail chains such as Wal-Mart. Schenirer solicited the contributions even as he backed the big-box changes, which are expected to be adopted by the council next month. Johnson has stayed silent but is considered pro-business and a likely yes vote.
The Wal-Mart donations are part of a wave of charitable contributions, known as "behests," made to causes championed by members of the City Council. Not long ago, these donations were relatively modest, but they have jumped since Johnson's election in 2008.
Since the start of 2011, the mayor and City Council have reported more behest contributions than all members of the state Senate and Assembly combined, according to a Bee analysis of data compiled by both the city and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. While behest donations made to state legislators have declined in recent years, the amount reported by city officials has skyrocketed, from $15,750 in 2005 to $7.1 million last year, records show.
Wal-Mart and the Walton Family Foundation, named for the family that created the company, have been the largest donors, contributing nearly $800,000 combined to nonprofits on behalf of Johnson and other council members since 2009, according to disclosure documents filed with the city clerk's office.
Those payments include $505,000 since last year to Johnson's education reform initiatives and other groups backed by the mayor. Johnson received another $210,000 from Wal-Mart between 2009 and 2011 most of which was not reported by the mayor until December 2012. The Walmart Foundation also gave $50,000 last year to a neighborhood nonprofit organization founded by Schenirer, documents show.
Defenders of behests say they represent an important way for local politicians to help improve their communities and schools. Johnson and Schenirer have both devoted many years to education and community development efforts.
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a campaign finance expert, said that while behests can create questionable circumstances for some elected officials, she's "not comfortable saying behests are always evil."
"Are they a loophole around contributions? Yes. But they oftentimes support organizations that do really important work. When these organizations can't look to state or local governments, I do think it's important for these bona fide charities to get funding."
Schenirer said the contributions to his Way Up organization go to help the city's economically challenged Oak Park neighborhood.
"If the city had the resources to do all of this, I wouldn't need to be out there raising additional funds," Schenirer said. "The causes I am trying to put forward are worthwhile."
Critics, though, say behests provide a back door for deep-pocketed interests to gain influence with politicians. Unlike contributions to political campaigns, there are no financial limits on behests. Contributions of $5,000 or more must be reported within 30 days.
Jim Araby, executive director of the Western States Council of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said he was concerned by Wal-Mart's donations to Schenirer and Johnson because the company "uses their money to leverage their relationships and I'm hoping this isn't one of those instances."
Araby's organization, like other unions that have feuded with Wal-Mart, opposes the planned changes to the big-box regulations. "The timing (of the donations) makes it questionable," he said.
Schenirer chairs the City Council's Law and Legislation Committee, which last week voted in favor of advancing a repeal of the city's strict big-box store regulations to the City Council for a vote next month. Schenirer has voiced support for easing restrictions on the stores.
Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said Schenirer's acceptance of the Wal-Mart donations "raises ethical questions," considering that he is pushing for the big-box regulations to be loosened at the same time.
"The problem is, he is parlaying his position as a council member to raise money from people who are doing business in front of the city," Stern said.
Schenirer rejects the notion that his position as a city councilman could be influenced by the $50,000 in donations made by Wal-Mart to Way Up. Johnson's staff, likewise, disputes the idea that such contributions would give Wal-Mart undue influence.
Schenirer said he has never spoken to Wal-Mart officials about the big-box ordinance.
"I'm very willing to stand on where the money goes and the fact that I'm not hiding it," he said. "Most of my colleagues, myself included, have received money from all sorts of organizations, including the police and fire unions, but we vote on contracts for those employees.
"I don't know that you could completely exclude yourself from any conflict because this is a small city and to be active and do the things I want to accomplish requires funds."
Way Up has a broad impact in Oak Park. It has organized health screenings for hundreds of first-grade students, helped purchase foreclosed homes for resale to neighborhood residents, created community gardens and exposed young people to career paths at the nearby UC Davis Medical Center.
Schenirer also noted that his position in favor of easing the restrictions on big-box stores is consistent with his advocacy of reducing red tape at the city. Earlier this year, he led the movement to simplify the city's decades-old zoning code and streamline permitting for development.
The change he's backing now would remove a requirement adopted in 2006 that superstore chains seeking to build in the city first conduct strenuous economic impact studies and wage analyses, hurdles that city development officials say have created a de facto ban on such stores, costing Sacramento jobs and sales tax dollars.
Johnson has so far been silent on the big-box proposal. He was not available for comment last week, but in an emailed statement, spokesman Ben Sosenko said any suggestion that Johnson would be swayed by donations from Wal-Mart or other groups has "no merit."
"Everyone, whether you are in a union or own a business, a conservative or a liberal, a Democrat or Republican, is concerned about homelessness, the arts, education and volunteerism," Sosenko wrote. "These are not political issues; these are community issues."
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said the company's foundation bases its donations solely on whether organizations are effective in certain fields, including hunger relief programs, education advocacy and workforce development.
"Our track record as a good corporate citizen is well known in Sacramento, and our contributions are administered in an ethical, legal and transparent way," she said. "From a philanthropic standpoint, our foundation supports organizations that make a positive impact on the lives of our customers and associates."
Since records on behests were first made available in 2005, Wal-Mart and the Walton family have been the largest donors to charitable causes affiliated with members of the City Council. But the groups aren't the only big spenders.
Telecommunications giant AT&T has given $646,700 in council behests. Siemens Industry, which makes light-rail trains and locomotives at its Sacramento plant, gave $450,000.
Education a focus
The mayor's initiatives were by far the biggest recipients. Since taking office in 2008, Johnson has raised $7.7 million in behests, city records show. Last year, he was fined $37,500 by the FPPC for failing to report thousands of dollars in behests within 30 days. A review of the mayor's behests in 2013 shows his office has reported subsequent donations on time.
The Walton Family Foundation, which is not directly affiliated with Wal-Mart but is funded by the family that founded the company, gave $500,000 to Johnson's Stand Up education initiative last year, according to documents filed by the mayor in December.
The Walmart Foundation also made a $100,000 donation in 2011 to City Year, a national program that places young tutors in city schools. That money was given on behalf of the mayor, who recruited City Year to Sacramento.
The donations made to Johnson's education causes by Wal-Mart and the Walton Family Foundation represent a small share of their national giving to similar organizations.
Earlier this year, the Walton Family Foundation announced an $8 million donation to Sacramento-based StudentsFirst, an education advocacy organization run by Johnson's wife, Michelle Rhee. The foundation donated $158 million to education reform causes in 2012.
The Walmart Foundation gave $26.3 million to organizations in California last year, Garcia said.
All together, Johnson has solicited just over $4 million in donations to various education initiatives since taking office, led by $2.2 million for Stand Up. He has also raised $1.8 million in private donations for a group called the Sacramento Public Policy Foundation, an umbrella organization that oversees, among other causes, the mayor's Think BIG task force that advocated for a new downtown sports arena.
Besides Wal-Mart, other major donors to the mayor's causes have included $400,000 from the Emerson Education Fund and $310,000 from Kevin Nagle, the head of Envision Pharmaceutical Services, who is often seen sitting courtside with the mayor at Sacramento Kings games.
Schenirer, the council's second largest recipient of behests, has raised a total of $803,000, most of which has gone to Way Up. He's received $434,800 from the California Endowment and significant contributions from Sutter Health, AT&T and Kaiser Permanente, records show.
On Thursday, Schenirer announced that he had received $75,000 from the California HealthCare Foundation and $25,000 from Wells Fargo both donations for Way Up.
Aside from Johnson and Schenirer, other council members have received much smaller amounts. Wal-Mart, for instance, donated $7,000 last year to a summer camp program on behalf of Councilwoman Angelique Ashby. It also has committed to give Councilman Darrell Fong $5,000 for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.
Ashby has generated a total of $39,000 in behests since last year; Fong, $60,000, records show.