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Nonprofit dispenses assistance and clout

A Marin County center gains influence through the governor's top aide.

September 04, 2007|Jordan Rau and Evan Halper | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Marin Services for Women, a small treatment center in a San Francisco suburb, offers alcoholic and drug-addicted women a portal to better lives. Since Susan Kennedy, the domestic partner of a Marin Services executive, became chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it also has become a gateway to powerful people and places in state government.

This summer, Schwarzenegger hired a member of the nonprofit's board as state labor commissioner, then gave her domestic partner a $123,897-a-year- state job. Schwarzenegger also appointed a Marin Services executive to direct the state's drug and alcohol programs.

And the governor has kept Vicki Marti, Kennedy's partner, on a state medical commission that pays $54,250 a year even though her term has expired. The board is a favored spot for patronage appointments; it includes three termed-out legislators and an ex-wife of a former state Senate president.

Now, Marin Services is using the lure of time with Kennedy to raise money. The center is honoring her at its annual fundraising dinner Sept. 14 and soliciting donations of as much as $25,000 for the chance to attend a private reception with her beforehand.

Capitol lobbyists whose clients have much at stake before the administration have been invited to donate, according to an e-mail obtained by The Times. Already, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Reliant Energy and Santa Anita Park -- the Arcadia racetrack that wants state permission to expand its gambling operations -- have agreed to help sponsor the event, according to Marin Services' website.

"It sounds pretty clear that lobbyists are using this event as an opportunity to either buy access to Susan Kennedy or simply pay her a favor," said Derek Cressman, a consultant for government watchdog groups. "We all know that in Sacramento, lobbyists do those things for a reason, and that reason is to eventually gain some benefit for their clients."

Kennedy, who has worked for Schwarzenegger for two years and is paid $175,000, declined to comment. Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor, said the nonprofit was "a worthwhile cause" that was appropriate for Kennedy to support "on her own time."

"How they want to put on this event is something the administration and Susan have nothing to do with," McLear said. "This is their event. They invited Susan to be honored."

Nancy Rubin, the president of Marin Services' board of directors, said that she was unaware that some lobbyists had been solicited but that the center has always invited "people who are supporters of the honoree."

"The goal is fundraising," she said. "That's why you go after high-profile people."

McLear said the administration hired people affiliated with the center on the basis of merit, not according to their association with the center, which Kennedy has been involved with for many years.

Marin Services is a 29-year-old nonprofit in Greenbrae, a Marin County community just north of San Francisco. Its last annual report said it aided 420 women, nearly a fifth of whom were homeless at the time of admission. Marti, a licensed therapist, has worked there for most of her career and founded its first outpatient program in 1988, according to her biography on the center's website.

The group's budget was $3 million last year. Most of its revenue comes from patient fees and government contracts. It raised only $16,709 directly from individuals and foundations in fiscal 2005-06, the most recent year for which its tax forms are available. Rubin said last year's fundraiser drew about $86,000.

With this year's fundraising dinner, the fifth annual such event, Marin Services appears to be aiming higher. California's two U.S. senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, are co-hosts of the event, which will honor bestselling author Anne Lamott as well as Kennedy. Tickets are $150. The big draw is the private reception with Kennedy, whom the invitation identifies repeatedly as Schwarzenegger's chief of staff.

Sponsors who donate more than $2,500 get into the reception. The larger the donation, the more tickets the contributor gets to the reception, with "Visionary" sponsors -- those who give $25,000 -- receiving 10 tickets.

At the end of July, Marti e-mailed the invitation to Sandra McCubbin, a Capitol lobbyist who represents the wireless communications industry and energy companies, with a note saying, "Thank you for offering to help."

McCubbin forwarded the invitation to other lobbyists, including some representing Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and the Santa Anita track. She also sent it to a consultant who represents a maker of clean diesel equipment. The company, Cleaire, stands to benefit from new diesel regulations being crafted by the state.

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