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January 11, 1998



Sunday, January 11, 1998
Section: West County
Page: A21
Scott Andrews

RICHMOND The city firefighters union, which misreported the source of more than $15,000 in campaign contributions last fall, has released documents that may dispel suspicion the money came from local businesses trying to hide their political roles.

The International Association of Firefighters Local 188 has maintained since December that the $15,112.32 originally reported incorrectly as contributions from retired firefighters was revenue from a firefighter-sponsored circus in May and June.

The bank records, which the Times requested, seem to support the union's version of events. The documents show that at least $15,300 was transferred from the circus to a union account one day after the annual circus left town.

Fire Capt. Henry Hornsby, the union president, said the money came from circus ticket sales. Internal union records support that statement.

"I think the records show that we are exonerated. We are well organized. We don't have to do shady things," said Hornsby after turning over the documents.

But City Councilman Tom Butt, a critic of Local 188 who accuses it of fronting for its business allies, argued that the level of political cash from the circus may actually hurt the union. It may anger some ticket buyers who incorrectly believe the annual circus is a charity event, he said.

"I'm not sure that (bank document) particularly vindicates them. They call people up and use high-pressure tactics to send a poor kid to the circus and the money ends up in a political fund to send out hit pieces," said Butt, a past target of negative union advertisements.

Union political consultant and former president Darrell Reese said complaints about high-pressure sales tactics result in immediate dismissal of the responsible solicitors. He said the problem is not widespread. Reese said he cannot predict whether publicity about the political goals of the circus will hurt ticket sales.

He admitted that the circus is a moneymaking venture, but added that firefighters and circus executives give away many tickets to poor children. Not all the money goes to the union. The circus producer and telemarketer get at least 80 percent.

The union's recent problems stem from an Oct. 23 report by its political action committee, which spent $39,005 to influence the 1997 Richmond City Council, West Contra Costa Unified School District and West County Waste Water District races.

The PAC report listed 96 retired firefighters as contributors. But the former city employees never gave a cent. Reese said the union was trying to account for circus revenue while staying within the state's $250 per person contribution limit. If the money had been distributed evenly among active firefighters, they would have exceeded the limit.

Reese said the Fair Political Practices Commission, a state watchdog agency, advised that the arrangement was legal because the retirees still get union benefits. But in December, the FPPC asked the union to get "in compliance" with state law, which requires correct reports.

Butt said he complained to the FPPC, virtually ensuring an investigation. An FPPC spokesman said Thursday no investigation has been completed.

Critics met the union's explanation that the $15,112.32 in misreported contributions was circus revenue with skepticism, partly because the amount was much higher than the $10,670.73 the union earned from its 1996 circus.

But those critics did not dispute the records released by the union Wednesday.

The records show deposit of a $15,300 check from the circus to a firefighter account. Hornsby said another $3,156 in cash deposits to the account is circus gate receipts. Six other deposited checks, totaling $219.75, were payment for tickets, he said.

The latest controversy is not the first for the union or for Reese.

He said the union has been the target of past FPPC investigations. It has never been fined. Reese himself has weathered heavy criticism but has never been convicted of wrongdoing.

He has been investigated in connection with alleged fraud by an El Sobrante home developer. The closure of Pt. Molate Naval Fuel Depot was stalled after the federal government objected to participation by a poorly rated consultant promoted by Reese. And he has been criticized for inaccurate political hit pieces.