Nonprofit dispenses assistance and clout

Times Staff Writers

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.

California’s telecommunications industry has many reasons to sponsor the event honoring Kennedy. During several years on the state Public Utilities Commission, Kennedy led the push to deregulate phone rates and repeal rules that would have banned deceptive marketing practices, would have required contracts and bills to present terms and charges in simple language and would have allowed customers to return new cellphones within 30 days without paying penalties.

After Schwarzenegger hired her in 2005, Kennedy helped select Rachelle Chong as her replacement on the PUC. Chong has been seen as a strong pro-utility vote.

Kennedy and Marti have been past sponsors of Marin Services fundraisers, but this year several special interests and Kennedy associates are playing prominent roles.

One early sponsor is Mercury Public Affairs, a political consulting firm in which Schwarzenegger’s former campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, is a partner. The firm’s clients include AT&T;, Pacific Gas & Electric and the California Assn. of Health Facilities. All have issues before state government.

Two other sponsors are Angela Bradstreet and Tiffany Rystrom, a couple who, like Kennedy and Marti, live in Marin County. Bradstreet, a prominent San Francisco attorney, joined the Marin Services board last year, according to Rubin. Like Kennedy, Bradstreet is a longtime Democratic activist who crossed party lines to support Schwarzenegger’s reelection last year.

The Schwarzenegger administration appointed Bradstreet state labor commissioner, a $134,000-a-year job, in June. Two months later, Schwarzenegger appointed Rystrom to the Public Employment Relations Board, a post that pays $123,897. Both left better-paying corporate law firms for the jobs, McLear said.

Another new administration official is Renee Zito, who was Marin Services’ program director until Schwarzenegger hired her in February as the director of the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, which disburses state money to treatment programs like Marin Services’. Her salary is $142,965.

After Zito left the center, Marti was promoted to Zito’s job.

The nonprofit is not particularly lucrative employment: Marin Services’ 2005 tax forms list Zito’s salary as $81,091 and Marti’s as $59,394. But since the end of 2002, Marti has been paid a salary as a member of the California Medical Assistance Commission, which negotiates Medi-Cal contracts with hospitals and insurers.

Marti was appointed to the panel by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, when Kennedy was his Cabinet secretary. Though Marti’s term ended in January 2005, she remains on the commission because Schwarzenegger has not moved to replace or renominate her. The governor’s spokesman said he kept Marti on because she is doing a good job.

The administration said all of its commission appointees were qualified. Cressman disagreed.

He said the appointments strike him as “a small circle of people here who hang out and make good things happen for each other. “