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CAUSE CÉLÈBRE

Haim Saban, friend to Israel and Democrats

The media mogul finds himself entangled in the controversy surrounding Rep. Jane Harman.

April 22, 2009|TINA DAUNT

Even in a town of bigger-than-life personalities, media mogul Haim Saban stands out -- lion-like in demeanor, furiously determined and unshakably loyal to those people and causes in which he fervently believes.

Those causes: Israel, the Democratic Party and medical philanthropy -- in that order. And he has a history of putting his vast fortune behind all three.

This week, Saban has found himself entangled in the controversy surrounding Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, the Democratic congresswoman from Venice. At some point in 2005, Harman was recorded on federal wiretaps as part of an espionage investigation of a pro-Israel lobby group. According to the Congressional Quarterly and the New York Times, Harman offered to intervene in the investigation in return for the group's support of her quest to be named head of the House Intelligence Committee.

According to press reports, an alleged agent from the lobbying group told Harman that he would get Saban -- who holds both Israeli and U.S. citizenship -- to withhold contributions from then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi unless the San Francisco congresswoman agreed to name Harman chairwoman. (On Tuesday, Harman denied any wrongdoing and challenged the Justice Department to release any materials implicating her.)

Both the FBI and the Justice Department say Harman never tried to influence the case, and when Saban was asked via e-mail by The Times what the story was behind these allegations, he e-mailed back: "No idea."

Nevertheless, it's no surprise that anyone concerned with U.S.-Israel issues would invoke Saban's name. His continuing concern for the Jewish state is not so much a matter of public record as it is a signature of his political participation and his personal identity.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Saban and his family fled to Israel along with much of Egypt's Jewish community during the 1956 Suez War. Later, Saban immigrated to the United States, where he became a deeply committed Democrat; until the fundraising regulations were tightened, Saban was the party's leading individual donor.

In 2003, Saban -- who made a fortune on the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" -- gave the Democratic National Committee $7 million, one of the largest donations ever received by a U.S. political party. Terry McAuliffe, the party's then-chairman, called Saban to tell him: "You're the man!"

Saban continued to build his media company by buying up networks in the U.S. and in Germany. (In 2006, he led a group of investors in acquiring Univision with a bid valued at $13.7 billion.)

With his place secured among the world's richest men, Saban was free to become a financial superhero to a generation of Democratic office seekers. His motives were always perfectly clear. "Everyone knows that there's no greater passion in Saban's life than the state of Israel and its continued survival," said veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman. "He's very focused. Anyone with billions of dollars and that much passion is a big deal."

Locally, Saban and his wife Cheryl have given millions to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. And recently, they agreed to help finance the massive reconstruction of the historic Wilshire Theatre, which also serves as a venue for services during the Jewish high holidays. (The theater will be renamed Saban Theatre upon completion. The dedication ceremony later this summer is expected to include at least one of the Clintons, Saban's longtime friends.)

After Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton lost her bid for the presidency, there was a rumor that Saban was going to support Sen. John McCain because he doubted the solidity of then-Sen. Barack Obama's commitment to Israel. That turned out not to be true, but some analysts have speculated that many of Obama's most forthright pro-Israel statements were designed to win over Clinton supporters like Saban. (Obama loyalists point out that, from his earliest days in politics, he has enjoyed strong support from Chicago's Jewish community.)

In the coming months, Saban and his wife are set to host more than a dozen charity events and political fundraisers at their Beverly Park compound. The couple's canyon estate is so vast that golf carts are at the ready to shuttle guests around the grounds. (It's the kind of home that almost merits its own page in the Thomas Guide.)

You can find the guest house -- built with power players such as the Clintons in mind -- past the water mill, the fountains and the topiary animals on the fairway-sized lawn. There's a clear all-weather tent that stays up most of the year for the many functions held at the main house.

How important are friendships and loyalty to Saban? Though he's a staunch Democrat, Saban threw one of the biggest fundraisers for his old friend Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 when the Republican governor ran for re-election. Saban jokes: "Arnold is really a Democrat." (As it turns out, lots of Republicans agree with him.)

And if there's any question over whether he abandoned Pelosi -- who ultimately did not give Harman a spot on the House Intelligence Committee -- consider this: Last month, he hosted a cocktail reception and dinner for Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at his house.

From all reports, everyone got along fine.

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tina.daunt@latimes.com

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