Man in Midst of Storm Has a Turbulent Past : Pressure to Name Convention Center After King Inspired Role as Leader of Opposition Group

Times Staff Writer

To most, Robert Lee Pruett came out of nowhere to become the leader of those vehemently opposed to renaming San Diego's new convention center after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is a role Pruett says he didn't seek, but which circumstances forced upon him. Yet he has taken to it with alacrity.

Who is this man in the middle of the storm?

He is highly opinionated and focused on the name-change issue. He is a high school drop-out who joined the Marine Corps at 17, went to Vietnam in the '60s and eventually earned his high school degree in the service. He is meticulous in dress and measured in demeanor. He moved to San Diego three years ago. He is single and retired at age 42 and is thinking about more travel around the world for the next few years.

He also has a troubled financial past, a former operator of nursing homes in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties whose remnant of a company faces more than $100,000 in state fines for ill treatment of patients, some of whom died.

He and his company, financially strapped, have been forced out of the convalescent hospitals they operated. His attorney has dropped him as a client for not paying several thousand dollars in legal bills. He is involved in at least seven court cases. He has told one court that he is on the verge of filing for bankruptcy. A former business partner who is now suing him claims Pruett was out to make a "quick buck."

Opposition Reasons Vary

Since early last month, when the San Diego City Council voted to rename the center, Pruett has been the point man for the opposition, a loosely knit group of people called Citizens to Keep the Name San Diego Convention Center. Like all of the public opposition that has surfaced so far, the group is white, many of them middle-aged or elderly.

Some are opposed because they say the city has done enough to honor King, and some say they are angry because the politicians at City Hall have ignored the will of the people as expressed in a referendum two years ago stripping King's name off Market Street. But others degraded King himself--calling him a communist and a womanizer--and blacks in general in some of the ugliest public testimony last week ever heard in the city.

Pruett doesn't condone the denigration, but he makes no apologies for it, either.

"I think people have a right to express their feelings, even if they are racists," he said in an interview. "I would hope that would not be their sole motivation for supporting keeping the name the San Diego Convention Center. But . . . regardless of their motivation, I think they have a right to speak. I think what's really important is that, as much as possible, that it be channeled."

That channel is the threat--or the promise, as Pruett calls it--to launch a referendum if the City Council and the Board of Port Commissioners do indeed name the center, which is due to open in late fall, after King. The prospects of the renaming are now uncertain because the port commissioners have proposed a compromise being evaluated by the City Council. If accepted, the complex would remain the San Diego Convention Center.

Ironically, Wes Pratt, the only black member of the City Council and the person who has led the fight for the renaming, said that though he doesn't think Pruett's reasoning is valid, he respects him for having the courage to speak his mind in public, instead of working behind the scenes as others are.

"Martin Luther King would have promoted participation in the process,"

Pratt said. " 'Let the process work'--that's what he wanted to give us."

Though Pruett has lived in San Diego only since January, 1986, having moved here from Orange County, he is no stranger to the city. He visited often and had a boat docked here. He did business here at three convalescent hospitals.

He was aware of the highly publicized debate concerning renaming Market Street for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., though he played no role in it. It was clear to him, he said, that when voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum taking King's name off and restoring Market Street, the public was sending a "clear mandate" to Mayor Maureen O'Connor and the City Council.

But he became worried in December, he said, when a citizens tribute committee appointed by the City Council--a committee he said was nothing more than a "smoke screen"--recommended changing the name of the new $160-million convention center.

"I became very concerned because . . . they were taking the convention center," he said. He sent a letter to the mayor. The response, he said, was basically "tough." That was the beginning of his crusade, and it sparked the bitter animosity he holds for the mayor.

Testified at Council Meeting

His first foray into the public arena occurred Jan. 10, at the meeting at which the City Council voted 7-2 for the renaming. He testified and placed outside in the council chambers copies of the letter he had sent to the mayor.

"While I was at the council meeting," he said, "90% of the people who stood up and spoke in support of the name, directly or indirectly, said that anyone in opposition was in fact a racist. I resent that. I resented it then. I'm not a racist."

Disgusted with the outcome of the vote, he said he waited three days to see whether anyone would pick up the opposition's banner. In the meantime, people who had read copies of his letter began calling him.

"I waited . . . hoping that someone else would step out and provide leadership on the issue," he said. "I didn't feel that we had the time to waste, and that's how I got involved."

Thus began the referendum threat, the letter-writing campaign, the circulation of petitions eventually signed by almost 5,000 people.

"You'll notice the City Council continually says the vote on Market Street was not a mandate. The City Council continues to say that they set up a process and that if we didn't participate in it, it was our loss," Pruett said. "Well, many of us saw that process. We saw the setting up of the advisory tribute board as a smoke screen."

So on one level Pruett opposes the process used to propel the name change, a process he said was rigged. But there are other reasons, too. He said he respects King for what he accomplished and the attention he brought to civil rights, but he said San Diego has done enough.

"I have no objections to honoring him. But I agree with a lot of the members of this committee, enough's enough. After all, there is a school, there is a park; a million-four was spent for a community center in that park. The idea that his wife, Coretta King, would come to San Diego and tell the City Council that they weren't doing enough to honor him, I think is somewhat appalling.

"Quite frankly, San Diego is not a historically significant civil-rights city. I'm not saying we don't have some civil-rights issues, but it's not significant historically, and I don't think we have the responsibility to make an international statement regarding an issue that's not significant for us."

There is also another, more personal reason behind his attitude.

"I have a certain concern over his attitudes toward those people that did go to Vietnam and did serve."

Pruett can't remember specific details, he said King "accused people that went to Vietnam and fought as murderers and things of that sort, not recognizing that, regardless of whether or not it was a popular war, we were still fighting for all of the peoples."

"What I find sad is the people that continue to follow him even in his death and state that they know what he thinks," Pruett said. "They state they know what he would do and what he would think and feel."

King wouldn't want his name on a building if it caused "this strife and division," he said. "And yet they go ahead, in spite of that, (and) insist, persist and demand that his name be put in concrete and steel. I have a problem understanding that and dealing with it."

Pruett was 17 when he dropped out of high school in Chillicothe, Ill., and joined the Marines. He went to boot camp in San Diego and eventually was shipped as an infantryman to Vietnam, where he served in 1965-66. He saw combat and was stationed in Phu Bai and Chu Lai. "I wasn't wounded nor was I a hero. I did my job and I returned," he said. After four years in the Marines, he was discharged as a sergeant.

He had a few odd jobs in Orange County, and worked briefly for Walt Disney Productions Inc. in their cash-control department. But Disney wanted to transfer him to Florida, and he wanted to stay in California. He quit and decided to go into health care. He attended Fullerton Junior College, with the idea of majoring in business administration, but he dropped out.

In 1977, he founded South Coast Care Inc., according to the California Secretary of State's office. The company, which the state suspended in April, 1987, for failure to file economic-status forms, was formed as a nonprofit firm to run nursing homes.

Money Maker Ran Homes

South Coast Care was nonprofit, but Pruett also formed Coastal Management Services Inc., a for-profit corporation of which he was the sole stockholder, according to court records. Under a system devised by Pruett, South Coast Care would receive the state license to operate a nursing home and pay Coastal Management to run it.

South Coast Care, which had headquarters in various places, including Huntington Beach and Long Beach, operated two convalescent hospitals, a 99-bed facility in Compton and a 147-bed nursing home in Long Beach, and paid Coastal Management a $23,500 monthly fee to be the day-to-day manager.

In 1983, Pruett's South Coast Care agreed to merge with another convalescent home company, Health Care Enterprises Inc. of San Clemente, which operated four nursing homes. Among them were the 92-bed Meadowlark Convalescent Hospital, 8001 Birmingham Drive in Kearny Mesa, and the 94-bed San Diego Convalescent Hospital, 3740 Massachusetts Ave., La Mesa.

According to the preliminary merger agreement, South Coast Care would take over the licenses of all six nursing homes and have them operated by Health Care Enterprises. Pruett was named vice president of Health Care Enterprises and placed in charge of running the facilities, according to court and state Department of Health Services documents. Starting in October, 1983, Pruett was paid $15,000 a month, along with an entertainment and travel allowance of $2,500 a month, according to the records.

On the surface, things were going smoothly. But in 1985, the state made a series of surprise inspections, the results of which spelled the end to the merger and the demise of Pruett's business.

Multitude of Violations

The state found systematic problems at some of the six facilities. The most extreme cases of alleged inadequate care were found at Meadowlark and the Bristol Care Center nursing home in Santa Ana. As a result, the state fined South Coast Care at least $110,000 for a multitude of violations, penalties that remain largely uncollected. The cases are pending in Superior Court in San Diego and Orange counties.

In the case of Meadowlark, state officials said two elderly patients died after receiving poor care.

That same month, South Coast Care was fined $1,000 for violations at the San Diego Convalescent Hospital involving the treatment of a 92-year-old man who later died there.

Though the problems at Meadowlark were serious, according to the state, things may have been worse at South Coast's 146-bed Bristol nursing home in Santa Ana. There, the state has fined South Coast $80,000 for a variety of violations, including an incident in which a 41-year-old patient choked to death on food.

South Coast Care was eventually forced out of all the nursing homes.

Pruett declined to talk about the nursing home problems or his other business problems. He said the convalescent homes had problems before his company became involved and "what happened is a culmination of activities that had occurred before South Coast" took over. He also said his business dealings are not relevant to the convention center issue.

"I have resigned," he said. "I'm no longer involved with that organization. I did in fact retire and as far as I'm concerned, I've left that behind me."

His former business partner, Hoyt Crider, certainly doesn't think so. He has doggedly pursued a suit since 1985 against Pruett. Crider--owner of Health Care Enterprises, the firm involved in the merger--said Pruett broke off the merger after Crider paid $102,000 for various improvements at the nursing homes, such as installing solar heating equipment.

"He wanted out after that. I think he was out for the quick buck," Crider said.

Told of Crider's comment, Pruett said, "He said that? Look, I don't have anything to apologize for. . . . That's all I want to say."

Among the allegations contained in Crider's suit filed in Orange County is that, in September, 1984, South Coast Care signed a 20-year lease to acquire the 70-year-old Blackstone Hotel in Long Beach without his knowledge.

Used Funds to Pay for Deficit

The suit claims that from September, 1984, to March, 1985, South Coast Care used money generated by the four nursing homes previously owned by Health Care Enterprises--amounting to $150,000--to pay for the operating deficit at the Blackstone, which was running at $26,000 a month.

Crider alleges that income from the two nursing homes originally owned by South Coast Care was not touched to pay for the Blackstone deficits. In March, 1985, South Coast Care abandoned its Blackstone lease, which caused the hotel's owners to file a lawsuit seeking $250,000 in damages. Pruett alleged that the building's owners had covered up problems involved in bringing the building up to earthquake standards. A confidential settlement in the case was reached in January, 1988.

Pruett represented himself in the settlement, after his lawyer, Mitchell Samuelsen of Orange County, dropped out because Pruett didn't pay his legal bills of $17,517.

In a letter Pruett sent last September to the judge hearing Crider's lawsuit, Pruett said that "South Coast Care Corp. has arranged . . . to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and Robert L. Pruett has arranged and paid for an attorney to complete a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. There are no assets to be liquidated and no funds to be distributed."

Meanwhile, the federal government at one time imposed tax liens against South Coast Care of more than $60,000; an El Cajon physical therapist said he is owed $49,618 because of work done at Meadowlark, and a San Diego pharmacy company was forced in 1985 to attach a South Coast Care bank account in Beverly Hills to collect a $22,200 bill.

As for the future, Pruett, a life-long registered Democrat, said he has no immediate interest in politics. He once ran for the City Council in Laguna Beach in the mid-'70s.

"I have no political ambitions. This is not a steppingstone to anything for me. My intention is to continue traveling for another two or three years and at that time, I may settle in and become intimately involved with the city, its politics and its activities."

His only focus right now, he said, is to keep King's name off the convention center. He has no plans to continue his opposition group for any other purpose. If the City Council accepts the Port District's compromise--and at the end of the week the council was leaning in the direction of a compromise--Pruett said he will consider the matter closed. If the council doesn't, and the renaming goes to a referendum, Pruett said that will be the end of the battle.

"The people have a right to speak. Regardless of how it goes, I would feel satisfied."

Whichever way it happens, Pruett is confident his side will win. And what will be the message to the country if that occurs?

"I think you are going to hear people in cities standing up and saying, 'We appreciate the actions of the city of San Diego in that they are not bowing to the threat of racism. They aren't bowing to the club of racism that has been used so effectively by the black community in particular to accomplish their goals.' I think that's what you are going to hear coming from the nation."

Times staff writer Leonard Bernstein contributed to this story.

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