Orange County Developer Ranks With Top U.S. Donors to Contras
One of the nation’s biggest individual contributors to the contra effort in Nicaragua is Orange County developer Frederick Robert Sacher. His donation--$400,000, according to a list of top donors compiled by one national pro-contra organization--prompted a personal letter of thanks from Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North.
The letter, written on National Security Council stationery while North was deputy director of political-military affairs for the National Security Council, begins, “Dear Fred.”
“Without patriots like you,” it says, “carrying out the President’s policy of support for a democratic outcome in Nicaragua would have been even more difficult. . . . You have given hope where there would otherwise be despair.”
Sacher--a San Juan Capistrano resident whose name is not well known among Orange County politicians and fund-raisers--is the county’s biggest contributor to the contra cause, according to information gathered from dozens of interviews and numerous documents in the last three weeks. But there are many others in the county who also have contributed to the flow of private aid to Nicaragua that has been a central issue in the ongoing Iran-contra hearings in Washington.
And not all of the donations from Orange County residents to that Central American country have gone to the contra effort.
Shirley Cereseto of Anaheim, a retired sociology professor from California State University, Long Beach, supports the work of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. She said she and about 20 Orange County friends give $10 a month each “that goes directly to Nicaragua.”
Cereseto, who said she has visited Nicaragua several times on fact-finding trips, said the contributions help fund humanitarian projects in the Nicaraguan countryside.
“We are opposed to all the killing and the destruction caused by U.S. support of the contras,” she said. “I wanted to go down there and see what the situation was with my own eyes and find out what the new government was like. Sixty thousand (U.S.) citizens have visited, and most have been impressed with the efforts of the revolutionary government to help poor people.”
Contributions to both the contras and the Sandinistas are legal, provided that all applicable tax laws are obeyed, state and federal officials said. However, shipments of some kinds of aid, such as weapons or drugs, may be subject to a variety of government restrictions, officials said.
Regardless of which side of the Nicaraguan conflict they support, contributors express strong feelings of patriotism.
But translating their fervor into contributions in Orange County has been extremely difficult, with fund-raisers for both sides involved in a complex web of overlapping organizations with catchy names that in some cases have not stayed around long.
For example former Fullerton dentist-developer William Brashears in late 1985 and early 1986 organized a Brea-based group, Freedom Fighters International, and raised about $17,500 during an Orange County visit by then-contra leader Eden Pastora. But Brashears folded the group soon afterward and moved to Montana, according to his estranged wife.
State and federal officials say Brashears never filed a statement of organization or any of several financial reports required of fund-raising groups.
Raoul Silva, a former aide to Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) who visited Central America with Brashears but later disavowed any connection with the fund-raising effort, said Brashears had attempted to sign a contract with Pastora allowing Brashears to keep about 58% of the money to cover personal expenses. But Silva said he does not know what happened to the money that was raised.
Brashears could not be reached for comment.
Silva said he and conservative activists Dennis Catron, Adolfo Lopez and Gary Gamaldi now are forming a new pro-contra group to raise money for newspaper ads and television commercials to “counter the Soviets’ very effective propaganda machine” in Nicaragua.
Brashears and Silva were mentioned in a February, 1986, memo from Robert W. Owen to North that was released in May at the Iran-contra hearings. Owen, a State Department official who was acting as a courier for North, requested in the memo that the two Orange County men be kept “on a leash.” He said they had promised government funds to Pastora, who since has left Nicaragua and now lives in Costa Rica.
Adolph Schoepe, founder of Anaheim-based Fluidmaster and well-known supporter of the Boy Scouts of America, said he contributed several hundred dollars to Brashears’ organization because “I thought it was a good cause. After all, we all love freedom, don’t we?”
But Schoepe added: “I never really paid attention to it. . . . It wasn’t a large sum of money, and I was never asked to contribute again by anyone else.”
Indeed, organizations raising money for the contras have managed to miss many wealthy, regular contributors to conservative causes, such as Carl Karcher, founder of the Carl’s Jr. restaurant chain, and Coalson Morris, head of the Lincoln Club, a prestigious GOP volunteer organization that finances candidates and causes.
“I’ve never been asked,” said Morris. “And I don’t know anybody who was.”
A spokeswoman for retired Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, a controversial and outspoken anti-Communist, said his pro-contra organization never got around to raising much money in Orange County, but that’s not because no one ever thought of it.
“Orange County is the mother lode--it’s a natural for us,” said Singlaub aide Joyce Downey. “But it hasn’t been tapped nearly as much as it should be, and I intend to rectify that as soon as possible.”
But there are “substantial” sums of money flowing to the contras from Orange County, according to Sal Stadthagen, Washington spokesman for Nicaraguan Resistance U.S.A.
“We have received a lot of calls, especially from Texas and California, and many were referrals from Congressman Dornan’s office,” he said. But Stadthagen, who declined to discuss the amounts of individual contributions, said the contras are using most of the money to pay off $2 million in debts, not to finance new military efforts in Nicaragua.
Most of the money going to Nicaragua from individual donors in the United States flows through discreet, non-public channels.
For example, Newport Beach stockbroker Chriss Street, who friends say contributed a large sum to the contras, declined in an interview to specify the amount he gave or to whom he gave it. However, he acknowledged that Pastora had been to his home and that he had introduced several potential contributors to him there.
“I’m not the big heavy hitter,” Street said. “But I guess I’m one of those people who like to create foreign policy.”
Buck Johns, Lincoln Club member, real estate developer and conservative activist, also acknowledged that he had contributed money to the contras but declined to provide details. But he did say the National Conservative Foundation and its political action committee (NCPAC) have been instrumental in raising pro-contra money.
Brent Bozelle, the foundation’s president, could not be reached for comment. NCPAC, which gained fame in recent years for targeting liberal House and Senate members for defeat at the polls, appears to be a common link between some, but not all, contra supporters in Orange County.
Robert B. Ferguson, an El Toro-based independent oil financier and frequent contributor to Republican candidates and conservative causes, is listed as a $10,000 donor by the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty, the tax-exempt charity run by fund-raiser Carl R. (Spitz) Channel. Channel recently pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Washington to using tax-exempt donations for the non-tax-exempt purpose of buying weapons with the money for the contras.
The National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty is the same organization that mentioned Sacher’s $400,000 donation in a list made public recently in Washington. Sacher made his contribution to the contras through that organization.
Ferguson, who is not related to Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), said he actually gave only $5,000 and could not explain why Channel’s organization listed the amount as $10,000.
He said Channel aide Chris Littledale solicited his contribution by phone. Ferguson said he suspects he was on a list of people who had contributed to conservative causes--a list he believes may have been supplied by NCPAC or oil industry political action groups.
Despite repeated efforts, Littledale could not be reached for comment.
Ferguson said he thought his contribution was going to aid the production of educational television commercials and other efforts aimed at pressuring Congress to provide funds for the contras, not for weapons.
Briefed by North
Ferguson said he was one of several people, including beer magnate Joseph Coors, who were privately briefed about the Nicaraguan situation by North during a 1985 visit to the White House.
“I was very impressed by what he had to say,” Ferguson said, adding that he did not then know the identities of Coors or the other contributors who were in the room at the time.
“We never introduced each other,” he said. “But I think we each knew this was something special.”
Ferguson said he was questioned by the special prosecutor’s office that is investigating possible criminal activity in connection with the Iran-contra affair. He said the questions dealt with reports of a private one-on-one meeting between Ferguson and North. But Ferguson said such a meeting never took place.
Ferguson described himself as a “political wildcatter"--someone who invests money in long-shot challenges to incumbents.
Thatcher Darwin of Leisure World-Laguna Hills is involved in a more tightly focused effort: creation of a democratic Nicaraguan government in exile.
On a wall of Darwin’s home is a poster of a woman contra soldier in full battle garb, armed with a machine gun.
Darwin, editor of a Leisure World GOP club newsletter, has flown widely at his own expense to promote The Freedom Project, an organization that sends medical supplies, food and clothing to contra camps and supports the Free Assembly, a group seeking to become a recognized government-in-exile.
Darwin said his primary contribution is in the form of personal efforts rather than money. He said he believes so strongly in freedom for Nicaraguans that he personally drove to an Inglewood holding pen last week where more than two dozen Nicaraguan refugees had been detained by the INS after applying for work permits.
“They were detained because someone hadn’t gotten the word from Washington that people applying for work permits are not to be deported,” said Darwin. “We found a federal judge who sprung them.”
Flew to Miami
Darwin flew to Miami and then to Washington two weeks ago with a group of children of Nicaraguan refugees who lobbied Congress successfully in support of a bill granting their parents the right to stay in the United States as temporary workers.
According to the U.S. State Department, no government agency is keeping tabs on how much privately donated U.S. money is going to either side in the Nicaraguan struggle. But several anti-contra organizations said they believe the amount totaled about $50 million from 1984 through 1986.
Pro-contra organizations said they have no accurate estimates of how much money has been raised in support of the Sandinista government or its programs. But the anti-contra Resource Center in Albuquerque, N.M.--a clearing house for political information about Central America and refugees--said anti-contra organizations were able to raise about $27 million last year alone.
That, a center spokesman said, was the result of a well-publicized bid to match and counter the $27-million contra aid package approved earlier by Congress. This year, the goal of the anti-contra fund-raising forces is $100 million, again matching the U.S. government’s contra aid appropriation.
Irvine Mayor Larry Agran and other Orange County political activists opposed to the contras say that most of the anti-contra effort here is in the form of small donations through organizations such as the Pledge of Resistance, the Orange County Committee for Central America, the Witness for Peace program and the Alliance for Survival.
Some of these organizations sponsor trips to Nicaragua for people wealthy enough to pay their own way.
Karen Speros of Irvine, who teaches English and social studies at University High School, was in Nicaragua on such a trip last week. Speros, a former Orange County Teacher of the Year and an ordained Presbyterian elder who has contributed financially to the Witness for Peace and Pledge of Resistance programs, was going to Nicaragua to help with public works projects in the field.
She could not be reached for comment. But her husband, Irvine business consultant Bill Speros, said the trip was motivated by “Karen’s quest for world peace.”
“Karen really feels that Nicaragua is the next Vietnam and doesn’t feel that the youth of this country should be sacrificed to another war.”
Much of the pro-Sandinista money raised in Orange County is for anti-contra education in the United States, Cereseto said, but some also goes to schools, hospitals and hydroelectric projects in Nicaragua.
Last year, Cereseto said, about $40,000 was raised in Southern California just to improve Nicaraguan water systems.
She said she worked on a flamenco dance concert last year that netted $1,000 for Nicaragua and is helping to plan another benefit.
Anti-contra groups in Orange County have a combined mailing list that includes about 400 people, of which only a few are what she termed “hard-core” activists.
But none, she said, has contributed on the scale of Fred Sacher.
Surprised by Visit
Sacher, 59, was surprised when a Times reporter knocked on his front door last week to ask about his $400,000 contribution to the contras. He declined to be interviewed on the advice of his lawyer, after saying: “I think I value my privacy very much.”
According to Real Estate Data Inc., a firm that provides property ownership research to subscribers, Sacher owns industrial and residential property in Orange County and elsewhere valued at more than $5.7 million.
Although he has told friends he is “nonpolitical” and donates money spontaneously, “from the heart,” Federal Election Commission records show that he contributed about $100,000 to political campaigns and national conservative organizations from Jan. 11, 1983, through July 1, 1985. The FEC does not have computerized records of contributions from sources other than political action committees since then.
In almost every case, the recipient of Sacher’s money was a candidate or organization supported by or working with NCPAC. He also contributed money to the American Conservative Trust, another of Channel’s fund-raising organizations, and the American Space Frontiers Committee, which supports President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as “Star Wars.”
State and county political contribution records show that Sacher contributed to Supervisor Don R. Roth’s campaign and to Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), as well as $25,000 to a 1983 reapportionment initiative drive sponsored by former Assemblyman Don Sebastiani (R-Sonoma)
“I first met Fred when we were both attending a Lincoln Club breakfast meeting in Orange County, which was followed up in Sonoma,” Sebastiani said. “It was shortly after that when I received a check for $20,000.” Another $5,000 was contributed later, Sebastiani said.
“I’ve talked to him two or three times since then, once in 1985 when I was trying to see if there was enough support for another reapportionment effort. . . . He told me he was supporting other causes. I think he mentioned the Afghan resistance and the Nicaraguan contras.”
Added Sebastiani: “I was really stunned by his generosity. It was like someone coming in cold, off the street, offering to help. He’s very soft-spoken, very tender--and very conservative.”
Buck Johns, a contra donor who knew Sacher several years ago, described him as “a very quiet, very private guy.”
When Sacher declined to be interviewed last week, he offered only this terse explanation of his contributions to the contras:
“You’re talking to a guy who flat out loves his country.”