A San Diego optometrist says she was told last year that, to get client referrals from the 15,000-member retail clerk's union, she would have to make an annual "donation of $500 to a group of the union's choice in my name," The Times has learned.
The allegation, made in a letter last month from Allied Gardens optometrist M. Melinda Wells, is being reviewed by two state agencies for possible violations of state law.
The letter was sent four months after seven optometrists already on the union's referral list donated $500 each to the fledgling state Assembly campaign of San Diego attorney Darrel Vandeveld--son of union president Thomas J. Vandeveld.
On Monday, the senior Vandeveld adamantly disputed the allegation by Wells, saying there was "absolutely not" any understanding that health care providers to the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 135 would be expected to make $500 donations at the union's direction each year.
Vandeveld said that the spate of donations to his son's campaign from the optometrists was probably the result of a fund-raising letter he sent out last October on union stationery to optometrists, dentists and other health care professionals catering to his union membership.
"I think my son's campaign is good for labor and I want to help my son, like any father would," said Vandeveld, Local 135 president for 16 years. The local represents retail and drug store clerks, dental assistants and meat cutters.
Sandy Michioku, a spokeswoman for the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, confirmed Monday that the political watchdog group has received a complaint and is reviewing the allegation. The state Board of Optometry is also investigating the allegation as a possible misdemeanor violation of state law.
"There is a general provision that prohibits any kickbacks, rebates or discounts for the referral of patients, clients and customers," said Karen Ollinger, executive officer for the optometry board. "We've had an inquiry into it and we're looking into it."
The allegation was made in a Feb. 28 letter to the California Optometric Assn. from Wells, the Allied Gardens optometrist, who said in the letter that she has been interested in securing a place on the union's list of preferred providers.
Although members of the union--the county's largest--are free to pick the optometrist of their choice, the seven eye-care specialists currently on the union's provider list have agreed to charge union members no more than $100 for each examination and eyeglass fitting.
In return for the guaranteed low rate, the optometrists are given exclusive advertising access to the membership through a personal letter of endorsement sent out each year by Vandeveld.
To evaluate whether to place Wells on the list, the union sent optometrist Marvin Weitzman to her Allied Gardens office for an interview on Dec. 29, she wrote. Weitzman is on the union's preferred providers list and has been asked to do the screening of his colleagues for the labor union.
After telling Wells that she would receive $100 per examination, Weitzman allegedly told her that optometrists on the list have no written contract with the union and work on the basis of an "oral agreement."
"He then told me that once a year, someone from the union would be calling me to request that I make a donation of $500 to a group of the union's choice in my name," Wells wrote in a letter obtained by The Times. "He said that although it was a request, it was something that you were expected to do in exchange for the business of over 90% of all grocery store workers."
In addition, Wells wrote, Weitzman said she would have to pay him to learn how to fill out one of the three forms needed for union reimbursement. "He told me he charged $150 to teach me how to do this, as he would be giving his own free time to teach me," she wrote.
He also said that to "ensure quality control of the lenses," that all optical orders for the retail clerks should be made through his lab, Sports Arena Optical, she wrote.
Wells, who was not placed on the list of providers, on Monday declined to comment on her letter, including why she waited two months to write about the incident. But two officials from the California Optometric Assn. called the alleged arrangement improper.
"First of all, it's intimidation," said Allan Freid, an administrator of the Southern California College of Optometry in Fullerton and chairman of the trade association's legislative committee.
"It's my belief that it's a kick-back scheme," he said. "The health care plans are supposed to be in the business of providing health care to people and I don't see how that's related to 'donations' to anyone else, whether it is a legislator or Goodwill or whatever . . . This thing does not sound kosher."
Richard H. Kendall, director of governmental affairs for the association, added: "I would think that would be improper." Kendall said the group has referred the matter to its legal counsel to see if any laws were broken.
Ollinger of the state optometry board said that the agency has the authority to take a range of disciplinary action, including the suspension of licenses, if an investigation demonstrates that kickbacks were solicited or paid in exchange for the union business.
Weitzman declined to return repeated telephone calls to his Rosecrans Street offices on Monday.
One of the optometrists who gave $500, Jay Kovtun of La Mesa, said Monday that he decided to contribute to Vandeveld for Assembly at the suggestion of Weitzman and another optometrist.
"They suggested it was a good thing to do, that he was good for optometry. I've been (servicing) the union for 10 years now. This is the first time I've ever contributed . . . This is the first time I've ever given to a campaign," said Kovtun.
In addition, Kovtun's wife--optometrist L.H. Peters--is shown on Vandeveld campaign statements as having given two $500 contributions through separate offices she maintains with other optometrists in Chula Vista and on University Avenue. One of the contributions was shared with her business partner in the University Avenue office, A. Sarantinos. Reached at home, Peters said she is semi-retired and was not aware of the contributions made through her businesses. Sarantinos could not be reached.
According to campaign records, other Vandeveld contributions from optometrists came from: Weitzman; R.E. Thomas of Chula Vista; Matthew Gentile of Oceanside; and David W. Hubbard of Escondido. All are on the preferred providers list.
Hubbard said Monday that he gave the money because he felt Vandeveld was the "best candidate" in the race. He declined to say whether his donation was solicited. Hubbard added, however, that his contribution was "absolutely not" made in exchange for union referrals.
Gentile could not be reached for comment.
Thomas said Friday that his donation was not directly solicited by the union, whose members he has been servicing for 20 years. "No, they did not," he said.
But the elder Vandeveld said Monday that he did solicit the optometrists and 55 other health care professions on the union's preferred providers lists to help in underwriting his son's Democratic Assembly campaign against incumbent Steve Peace (D-La Mesa).
In fact, most of the $20,150 received by his son came from other retail clerks' unions, in Washington and throughout the state, at his request, Vandeveld said.
Vandeveld and his executive assistant, David Didier, said Monday that the San Diego-based local often calls upon its health care providers, bankers, attorneys and other contractors to chip in for political donations to the labor political action committees or fund-raisers for leukemia research. In 1988, for example, Vandeveld said he sent out a letter asking health care providers to dig into their wallets for a golf tournament that raised more than $10,000 for leukemia research.
Late last year, however, Vandeveld said he issued a special written appeal to optometrists and 55 other preferred health care professionals to raise money for his 29-year-old son's campaign. The Oct. 12 fund-raising appeal was sent on UFCW stationery after the executive board endorsed the younger Vandeveld.
"I deeply appreciate your loyalty and good service to the 15,000 members of the UFCW Local 135 and their families through the years," the letter from Vandeveld said. "You always have been very supportive of our union and its various programs.
"I am now writing you to make a very special request--a personal favor--that you make a political contribution to the campaign of my son, Darrel Vandeveld, who is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the California Assembly seat in the 80th District," it said.
" . . . I truly believe in Darrel's candidacy, not only because he is my son, but because I believe he will make an outstanding legislator," the letter says. "Please send your contribution as soon as possible. You will be participating in a noble cause, and Darrel and I will be very grateful."
The elder Vandeveld said Monday that he did not view his request to health care providers as intimidation, adding that he has not done anything to jeopardize the status of providers who declined to contribute. Beside the San Diego-based optometrists, Vandeveld's campaign received a $1,500 donation from an eye-care office in Canoga Park, and two $1,000 donations from San Diego dentists, public records show.
"I can't tell you how the hell they felt, but I didn't intend for them to feel strong-armed and there aren't any who indicated to me that they felt strong-armed," he said.
"If they hadn't provided a contribution, they were still providing services. I haven't changed the (preferred provider) program from what it has been."
His son credited the mailing for a number of $500 checks from optometrists that he received in the mail to his home in late October.
"I think it's wonderful," said the Democratic hopeful, an attorney in the San Diego office of Musick, Peler & Garrett law firm.
"As a challenger to an incumbent, no special interest group is going to contribute money because they pride themselves on what they call 'smart giving'--giving to the candidate that they think has the best chance of winning. It is a purely pragmatic decision. They couldn't care less about the candidate's public policy views. What they hope to gain is some favor by giving money."
Asked, however, if the optometrists knew anything about his public policy views, Vandeveld said, "I'm sure they don't. I've never talked to them."
Both the elder Vandeveld and his union assistant said Monday they know of no informal agreement under which optometrists or other health care providers agree to make $500 donations each year to a cause or candidate selected by the labor group.
Reacting to the allegations against Weitzman, Didier said: "If he in any way hinted, suggested or anything else that it is a mandatory contribution, that's ridiculous. He obviously knows better . . . but I find it hard to believe."