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Jerry Brown's charter schools in Oakland reap big donations

At a time when many nonprofits are struggling to remain afloat, watching contributions sputter amid an ailing economy, two small Bay Area charter schools are having a banner year, with hundreds of thousands of dollars gushing into their coffers.

Big energy companies, telecommunication interests and Indian tribes are lining up to write checks. So are unions, Sacramento lobbyists and Hollywood celebrities.

Many of these donors have something to gain in addition to the warm feelings and tax deductions that come with helping a worthy cause: a chance to get in the good graces of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Since becoming governor, Brown has raised nearly $1.5 million for the Oakland Military Institute and more than $1 million for the Oakland School of the Arts — nonprofits he helped establish while mayor of that city — according to state records that track charitable contributions made at the request of elected officials.

Other state lawmakers reach out to political donors to raise money for their favorite causes, but none is as prolific as Brown. Unlike direct campaign contributions, charitable donations are not encumbered by financial limits under state law. That has made these types of gifts increasingly popular.

"This is definitely the new fad in influence peddling," said Derek Cressman, a spokesman for the government watchdog group Common Cause.

Brown insisted that donations to the schools, which primarily serve inner-city youth, have had no effect on his decision-making, and he defended his efforts on their behalf as "the Lord's work." But the schools' donor lists read like a who's who of the politically powerful.

"Look, the money is not coming from the Boy Scouts and the Brownies," Brown said. "Should I put on sackcloth and ashes?" — a biblical reference to demonstrations of repentance. 

Among the largest donors to the military institute is the California State Pipe Trades Council, which gave $90,000 at Brown's behest in the first weeks of his governorship.

The union and its top Sacramento lobbyist, Scott Wetch, had pushed for changes in a key renewable energy bill to ensure that much of the state's supply would come from California power plants. That would lead to more jobs for the workers Wetch represents. Those changes were included in the final version of the bill, one of the first pieces of legislation Brown signed.

"The plumbers support a lot of charter schools around the state," Wetch said, "and it just happens that the type of kids that the Oakland Military Institute targets are from a lot of neighborhoods that the people I represent live and work in."

Indian tribes and card club owners locked in a fight over the legalization of online poker — perhaps the most hotly contested battle in the Legislature this year — also have opened their wallets at Brown's behest, donating $290,000 to the arts and military academies since January.

The biggest contribution, $150,000, came from the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians. The tribe has come out against SB 40 by Sen. Louis Correa (D-Santa Ana), which would legalize Internet poker in California. Lytton is one of the dozens of tribes and card clubs that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying lawmakers as negotiations continue.

Companies that depend on state contracts for their livelihood also are among the schools' donors. The gaming technology company GTECH, which operates the California lottery, gave $25,000 to the Oakland Military Institute earlier this year.

Cressman said these groups make charitable donations for the same reasons they give to political campaigns.

"You've still got an elected official soliciting money from somebody," he said. "That's a situation that invites both the perception of undue influence and the reality of feeling grateful to the donor. People find a way to do nice things back to people they feel grateful to."

But, Brown said, Bank of America gave $25,000 to one of the schools and co-sponsored a recent green-energy conference with the governor at UCLA.

"Do you think if the head of the Bank of America called, I wouldn't take the call" if he hadn't made the donations? The governor dismissed any focus on the donations as "journalistic games."

As Brown rakes in millions for the charter schools, his reelection fund seems to be lying fallow. New campaign finance records show he's raised just $71,000 for that committee since becoming governor in January, far less than either Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris or Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom raised over the same period. Brown does, however, have millions left over from his last campaign.

Instead he has focused on the schools' finances, appearing at fundraising galas out of earshot of the Capitol press corps. There, lobbyists from the gaming entities and corporate interests that have supported Brown's charities have hobnobbed with celebrities like long-time Brown friend Francis Ford Coppola.

The governor and dozens of lawmakers in both parties have collected a combined $6.8 million for various nonprofits through the first seven months of 2011, according to state records.

Harris reported $221,000 in donations to a nonprofit that paid for her inaugural festivities. Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) raised $300,000 for a Sacramento community center from a casino tribe, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

Donors are under no obligation to notify lawmakers when making a contribution to their favorite charity. The fact that they do, experts said, implies that they are hoping to get something in return.

Of course, not everyone who gives to Brown's charities has an overt political interest in doing so. Celebrities like Robert Downey Jr. and hot-yoga guru Bikram Choudhury have donated money to the Oakland arts school.

Brown spokesman Gil Duran said Brown has known Choudhury since the 1970s.

"The governor," Duran said, "has no secret yoga agenda."

anthony.york@latimes.com

Times staff writer Marc Lifsher contributed to this report.

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