Stealthy Wealthy: Jerry Perenchio speaks softly, carries a big checkbook


Jerry Perenchio, Source: The California State University

It may be easier to get the famously closemouthed mega-donor Jerry Perenchio to open his checkbook than to get him to talk to a reporter. The octogenerian former chairman of Univision and his wife Margaret are major players in this year's election, having underwritten American Crossroads to the tune of $2 million so far. Perenchio also gave half a million dollars to Restore America, the Super PAC that supports Mitt Romney, and $100,000 to the super PAC that supported Jon Huntsman's now-defunct presidential campaign.

That's just the latest in the more than $50 million Perenchio and his wife have poured into political activities stretching back decades, mostly to conservative candidates and causes. They have also contributed many millions more through their charity. 

But, despite reports that he is the biggest landowner in Malibu, and worth $2.3 billion according to Forbes, Perenchio has been described as a “zelig”-like creature. He pops up everywhere — the friend of mayors, governors, presidents and movie stars — always wins big on his business interests, but remains enigmatic. He reportedly ascribes to a list of 20 “rules of the road” that include “Stay clear of the press. No interviews, no panels, no speeches, no comments. Stay out of the spotlight — it fades your suit.”

The Perenchios have made political contributions large and small up and down the political ladder, ranging from $250 for Malibu city council candidates to $2 million donations for state initiative campaigns and more recently, super PAC contributions, according to Sunlight’s analysis of federal and state campaign finance records. Some 56 percent of the contributions analyzed went to state and local level candidates, parties, and concerns, with the rest going to federal candidates and parties, super PACs, and 527 organizations. The $50 million Perenchio is known to have given is likely understated, since electronic record searches are unavailable for his contributions before the late 1990s.

Most of the money has gone to support Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former President George W. Bush and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as Republican party committees, but some Democrats have benefited as well, including former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. 

Like the Koch brothers, who in addition to investing heavily in politics, have also given many millions of dollars to charities, Perenchio’s Chartwell Charitable Foundation distributed nearly $144 million between 2001 and 2010, and has been one of the top funders to charities in the Los Angeles area since 1999, according to the Foundation Center. These contributions include millions for UCLA, generous gifts for AIDS charities and gay service organizations, environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), art museums, symphonies, and hospitals. When Los Angeles was in a pinch to fund a victory parade for the Lakers, he was one of the wealthy locals to kick in the cash.

At least some of his charitable contributions track his political preferences. For example, the foundation has been a longtime supporter of the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit organization with the mission to spread democracy abroad. The IRI, which has been chaired by McCain since 1993, has come under criticism by left-leaning groups for being a front for covert actions. The charity's support for another group associated with McCain, the Reform Institute (which supported McCain's agenda for campaign finance reform) got attention for possible conflicts of interest during McCain's bid for the presidency in 2008. The Chicago Tribune noted the foundation had given contributions to the group while Perenchio was chair of Univison, which had many concerns before the Senate Commerce Committee, then chaired by McCain. Perenchio has given direct campaign contributions to McCain since the 2000 election cycle, and in 2008 he served as co-chair of his finance committee and bundled at least half a million dollars to the candidate.

Perenchio employs clout to advance Univision

Perenchio's business beginnings had their roots in Hollywood. He began his career at the talent agency MCA in the late 1950s, and went on to co-promote the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier World Heavyweight Championshiop fight as well as the Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match. His partnership with Norman Lear led to such television hits as "All in the Family," "Maude," and "Good Times." He co-produced the 1982 film Bladerunner and also had a hand in the mega-hit "Driving Miss Daisy." In 1992 he purchased Univision Communications; by the time he sold his stake to a group of investors including mega-donor Haim Saban in 2007 for $1.3 billion, it had grown into the nation's fifth-largest television network.

When Univision sought permission for a merger in 2003 with the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, a rival company, the Spanish Broadcasting System, launched an opposition campaign, purchasing advertisements in newspapers criticizing Perenchio both because he is not Hispanic himself and because he supported former governor Pete Wilson. Opponents of the merger accused Perenchio campaigning during the 1990s on behalf of the infamous Proposition 187, a voter-approved measure — later overturned by courts — that permitted California to deny social services to illegal immigrants, including education to their minor children.  Perenchio denied the accusation, pointing to a mid-1990s statement where he had opposed the initiative. 

Indeed, in the late 1990s, Perenchio had also given $1.5 million to opponents of proposition 227, which replaced bilingual education programs in California's public schools in favor of English immersion classes. At the time it was the one of the biggest personal contributions ever made to a California initiative, reported the Los Angeles Times

According to reporting by the New York Times' Glen Justice, in 2003, Univision sent lobbyists and executives to visit more than 100 Congressional offices, as well as the offices of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Univision also sought the help of Gov. Bill Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico, and the recipient of more than $269,000 from Perenchio over the years (much of it after the merger), who wrote letters on behalf of the deal, which later got approval.

Univision also flexed its muscles on Capitol Hill to oppose a bill that would require cable companies to offer customers the ability to subscribe only to channels of their choosing. Along with other cable companies, Univision opposed a proposal that companies be required to offer "a la carte" subscriptions, an idea backed by consumer groups as promoting competition and lower costs. Despite Perenchio's campaign contributions to Sen. John McCain, he was one of the leading congressional crusaders for a la carte pricing. But, Perenchio was also a friend to both President George Bush one and two, bundling at least $100,000 for the George W. Bush's 2004 campaign.

Following the 2004 election, the FCC sided with the cable industry and issued an unofficial report that argued a la carte pricing would cause higher prices for consumers. Although the agency reversed course two years later, issuing a new unofficial report that said a la carte pricing could be a good thing, Congress shot down an initiative by McCain to require cable companies offer the option. It has not gained any traction since.

Perenchio courts state politicians and concerns

Perenchio has reached deeply into his pockets to support California state and local candidates, such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In addition to supporting his city council and mayoral races directly, in 2010 he gave $250,000 to the Coalition for School Reform, an independent committee that supported school board candidates backed by the mayor, who has been battling the teachers unions and is a supporter of the charter school movement. Perenchio also gave $500,000 in 2007 to a similar independent committee, Partnership for Better Schools.

Perenchio gave more than half a million dollars to the campaigns of Villaraigosa's predecessor Richard Riordan, who was mayor of Los Angeles from 1993 to 2001. Perenchio's charity has been a contributor to ICEF Public Schools, which describes itself as a nonprofit charter school management organization. Riordan is chairman of the board of trustees. The charity also has long supported Homeboy Industries, a group that provides job training to former gang members, a group favored by Riordan.

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has benefited greatly from Perenchio's largesse. The Perenchios gave a total of $3.4 million to his campaigns and ballot initiative committees set up by the governor, the California Dream Team and the California Recovery Team. In 2005, Schwarzenegger and his allies won a ruling that overturned California Fair Political Practices Commission regulations that would have capped contributions to such ballot initiative committees at $22,300 from each donor. Perenchio's contributions to such committees range from $25,000 to $1.5 million at a pop.

Perenchio doesn't leave much of a trail in terms of his interests before various levels of California state government–there are no registered lobbyists at the state level for Chartwell Partners. But when public controversies have erupted, Perenchio shows he knows how to use his muscle while remaining pragmatic, that he knows how to make–and close–a deal.

Consider the case of his private golf course. In 1982, Perenchio got permission from the California Coastal Commission to build a jogging track, ponds, and to do some landscaping on 10 acres next to property he owns in Malibu Colony, an oceanside gated community that is home to celebrities including Tom Hanks, Sting, and Jackie Collins. But instead of putting in the jogging course, he created a private golf course for his wife. Some 20-odd years later, in 2003, local environmental activists Roy Van de Hoek and Marcia Hanscom discovered the illegal golf course when looking at an aerial postcard of Malibu. Concerned about pesticide and fertilizer runoff into the Malibu Lagoon and fabled Surfrider Beach, the site of the films Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo, they complained to the Coastal Commission. 

According to press reports, Perenchio sent a team of lawyers and lobbyists to the Commission to push for a retroactive permit for the golf course, whose staff recommended that he be granted it, then postponed the issue when the move triggered a wave of public criticism. The Wetlands Action Network, the group associated with Hanscom and Van de Hoek then sued to require Perenchio to comply with local environmental laws. In the ensuing settlement, Perenchio got the permit–although he also agreed to take a number of steps to mitigate damage from runoff and to donate the land to the state for use as a public park after his and his wife's deaths. Hanscom applauded the deal, calling it a "very generous thing to do."

Another local environmentalist, Mark Gold, director of Heal the Bay, told the Los Angeles Times that it was unclear how much runoff from the golf course had contributed to the lagoon's troubles, but called the steps Perenchio had promised "extraordinary measures." Perenchio's son, John, served on the board of Heal the Bay, which had gotten ample contributions from Parenchio's charity.

In another local controversy that played out around the same time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Perenchio's Malibu Bay Company pushed to develop land where an annual chili cookoff has taken place since the early 1980s. This culminated in the development of Perenchio-supported "Measure M," a referendum sent to voters in 2003, that would have given the city three years to raise $25 million to buy the land from Perenchio; in exchange, Malibu Bay would be able to develop other holdings throughout the city while also helping fund parks and ball fields. When it was defeated, Perenchio wrote the city that there was "no point in reopening the matter." Nevertheless, he went back to the table, agreeing to sell the land if the city could come up with the money by the end of 2005. The city did, and the land is now the site of the new Legacy Park, touted as an "environmental cleaning machine."

Perenchio remains true to his word about not talking to the press: when contacted by the Sunlight Foundation, a Perenchio assistant said he made it a policy not to talk to reporters.

photo credit: The California State University

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