A week after he was elected governor in 2018, Gavin Newsom went to a trendy music hall in San Francisco’s Mission District where his wife, filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, was the center of attention.
The event was a fundraiser for a nonprofit founded by Siebel Newsom called The Representation Project, which promotes feminist causes, finances her documentary films and has paid her more than $2.3 million since its founding in 2011.
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Photos from the party show Newsom mingling with guests — wealthy Californians and “celebrities, scholars and youth leaders,” as the program described them — before a panel discussion and gourmet buffet.
Also in attendance — and writing five-figure checks to finance the gala — were executives of some of the most powerful corporations in California, all with reasons to ingratiate themselves with the governor-elect.
Pacific Gas & Electric, then facing multiple state investigations for its role in sparking a series of devastating wildfires, was acknowledged as a “champion donor,” indicating a $25,000 donation, according to the program.
AT&T and Comcast, heavily-regulated telecoms that hoped to retain their market dominance in California, each gave $10,000.
Another donor was the Kaiser Permanente health care system, an opponent of a proposal to create a “single-payer” health plan for the state, which the new governor campaigned on. Kaiser’s president at the time, the late Bernard Tyson, was on the event’s host committee.
So was John Fisher, heir to the Gap clothing fortune and owner of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, which wanted state permits for a new stadium.
The flow of corporate donations to Newsom’s wife’s nonprofit that night are part of a pattern, a Sacramento Bee investigation found.
From 2011 through 2018, the nonprofit has paid Siebel Newsom more than $290,000 per year — $2.3 million in all — for her leadership work and for creating three documentary films on social justice themes, according to the nonprofit’s tax returns. That’s more than 20% of the $10.4 million it received from contributors. The Newsoms’ tax returns and financial disclosure forms show she has continued to draw a salary since her husband became governor.
Many donations came from California philanthropists, venture capitalists and people who inherited great wealth.
But in recent years, as Newsom’s political star ascended, records show his wife’s nonprofit received more than $800,000 from a dozen corporations that regularly lobby state government on matters affecting their financial bottom lines. In 2015, the year Newsom announced he would run for governor, The Representation Project’s contributions increased by 30% to almost $1.6 million.
The nonprofit isn’t required to disclose its donors, but The Bee identified more than 70 of them through interviews, promotional material and public records.
The donations were not explicitly political, but they helped the companies deepen relationships with the most powerful man in California politics. Meanwhile, Representation Project donors also gave about $1.3 million to Newsom’s political committees, records show, and some have also donated hundreds of thousands to other charities at Newsom’s behest.
California ethics laws do not regulate charitable fundraising by the relatives of government officials, and the practice seems to be growing more common.
In February, The Bee reported that companies with business before the Legislature had pumped $500,000 into nonprofits run by the wife of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
Last year, the news website Cal Matters reported that then-Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Alameda had set up a nonprofit and steered $25,000 of its funds to another nonprofit where his wife was CEO. In March, Newsom appointed Bonta attorney general.
Ethics experts from outside California said this fundraising dynamic raises red flags.
“Public office shouldn’t be used for private gain, even if the private gain is a charitable cause,” said Kathleen Clark, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Donors may give to the spouse’s nonprofit because they hope to win favorable treatment from the official, or because they fear they will be politically “disadvantaged” if they refuse, she said. And when the official’s spouse is getting paid from the donations, “that raises the possibility of personal enrichment,” Clark said.
Mark Davies, a Fordham University law professor and former director of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, expressed a similar concern.
“This is just a subtler variation of a lobbyist hiring an elected official’s spouse,” he wrote in an email.
Since November, when his dinner with a lobbyist at a pricey Napa restaurant called the French Laundry prompted embarrassing headlines, Newsom has sought to tighten ethics rules for the governor’s office. In December, he barred his political consultants from lobbying his administration.
In March, as the recall movement against him gathered steam, he extended the lobbying ban to include his unpaid political advisers.
He also barred top administration officials, including his wife, from accepting gifts from lobbyists. The moves were intended to reflect Newsom’s “commitment to an administration that exceeds California’s already strong legal standards,” his top aides wrote in a letter to staff announcing the rules.
Newsom hasn’t addressed his wife’s nonprofit.
The Newsoms refused multiple requests to be interviewed for this story through The Representation Project and through spokespeople for the governor’s office and campaign.
“The Governor is proud of the First Partner’s longstanding leadership on gender equity, as well as her continued advocacy on behalf of California women and their families,” spokeswoman Erin Mellon wrote in an emailed statement. “His decisions, always grounded in sound policy and good governance, are made in the best interest of the State of California.”
In an email, The Representation Project’s executive director Caroline Heldman wrote that donations to the nonprofit fund “vital work to fight sexism through films, education, research, and activism.” She said Siebel Newsom has not overseen fundraising since 2015.
“With regards to donation transparency, The Rep Project goes above and beyond non-profit industry standards,” Heldman wrote. “We do not accept anonymous donations, and we publicly disclose all donations above $5,000 on our website.”
Siebel Newsom’s nonprofit Representation Project
Jennifer Siebel grew up in Marin County, graduated from Stanford with a business degree and worked for nonprofits in Africa and Latin America, where she helped women start businesses, according to her bio on Newsom’s campaign website. She then moved to Hollywood, eager to break into films. As an actress, she played minor roles in the movie “Rent” and the television series “Mad Men.” On a blind date in 2006 she met Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, and they married two years later.
In 2011, soon after her husband was elected lieutenant governor, she founded The Representation Project and produced her first documentary, “Miss Representation,” which explored the harm caused by female stereotypes in media. The film never made it into theaters, but the Women’s Film Critics Circle honored it as the year’s “best theatrically unreleased movie.”
It was followed by “The Mask You Live In,” (2015), an inquiry into societal pressure on boys to conform to narrow definitions of masculinity, and “The Great American Lie,” (2020), about the intersection of economic inequality and sexism.
The year Newsom was elected governor, Siebel Newsom stepped back from her role as CEO and instead took the title chief creative officer. She is working on her fourth film, Heldman said.
The Representation Project financed the films by making payments to Siebel Newsom’s film company, Girls Club Entertainment, records show. For example, a tax return filed for the 12 months ending in March 2019 shows the nonprofit paid Girls Club $150,000 for “writer/producer/director” services. Siebel Newsom also drew a $150,000 salary that year from the nonprofit.
The nonprofit hasn’t posted a tax return since then, but the Newsoms’ 2019 tax returns show she was paid $150,000 by The Representation Project and $50,000 by Girls Club Entertainment. Newsom’s financial disclosure form says she continued to be paid by The Representation Project and Girls Club Entertainment in 2020.
Renee Irvin, director of the University of Oregon’s nonprofit management program, said Siebel Newsom’s income from The Representation Project didn’t seem excessive for a nonprofit of its size. If it topped $400,000, that might be out of line, she said.
Siebel Newsom’s films promote many liberal political priorities her husband has championed as governor. Newsom himself is interviewed in two of the films. Also featured are his political allies, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Newsom has appointed several experts who appear in the films to top roles in his administration, including Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, now the state’s surgeon general, and Dee Dee Myers, now Newsom’s top economic adviser.
Donors with political interests
The nonprofit, the films and Newsom’s political world overlap in other ways.
PG&E, a reliable Newsom donor since his days on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was listed as “associate producer” of Siebel Newsom’s first film. Her second film was produced “in association with” the utility, according to the credits. In 2017, Brandon Hernandez, PG&E’s top government affairs executive at the time, served on The Representation Project’s board. (After he was elected governor, Newsom said he would no longer take donations from PG&E, blaming the company for wildfires.)
Other board members served as the governor’s political operatives: Ann O’Leary, Newsom’s former chief of staff, and political strategist Nathan Ballard, Newsom’s former spokesman and confidant, whose clients have included ones that lobby state government. (Ballard left the board last year after he was charged with domestic abuse.)
Corporate donors insisted that politics played no role in their decision to give money to a nonprofit run by the governor’s wife. In interviews and emails, officials said the companies simply wanted to support The Representative Project’s efforts to promote inclusiveness and diversity.
Some big donors lobbied on multiple issues. Here are details:
Health care provider Kaiser Permanente donated $20,000 to sponsor Representation Project events in 2018 and 2019, Kaiser spokeswoman Jennifer Scanlon said. At the governor’s request, the Kaiser Foundation also gave $9 million to COVID-19 relief efforts, and Kaiser employees gave $21,000 to Newsom’s 2018 run for governor.
The governor has close relations with the health care giant, and Newsom’s executive secretary, Jim DeBoo, is a former Kaiser lobbyist.
Early in the pandemic, the Newsom administration signed a $500 million no-bid contract with Kaiser, Dignity Health and the Los Angeles County Public Health Department to operate a field hospital to reduce strain on the health care system.
In February 2021, Newsom tapped Kaiser and health insurance company Blue Shield to run the state’s vaccinations campaign.
The Newsom administration said it made sense to involve Kaiser in the effort because it is California’s largest health care provider. The governor said Blue Shield and Kaiser would not profit from the arrangement, but experts said they could still benefit. Kaiser got a carve-out so it would receive vaccines more directly, for example.
Michael Johnson, a former Blue Shield executive-turned industry critic, said the arrangement was probably in the public interest. But he said Kaiser’s efforts to build a relationship with Newsom, including through its Representation Project donations, may have helped the company secure the agreement
“If Kaiser didn’t have any relationship with the governor’s office, getting that kind of special treatment, even if merited, might have been more difficult,” Johnson said.
Companies like Kaiser use charitable contributions to win good will from government officials, said Wendell Potter, who oversaw charitable and political giving at insurance giant Signa before becoming an industry whistleblower.
“These donations are strategic,” Potter said. “They are made not just because you are altruistic, but for a purpose.”
Meanwhile, Kaiser has reported lobbying Newsom and nine state agencies on dozens of other measures and regulations.
One big issue concerns whether California will create a state-run health system, known as “single-payer.” Newsom campaigned on the issue, but has backed away from it since taking office.
“They want to make sure the governor doesn’t fulfill that campaign promise,” Potter said. “Something like that would radically change the way they do business.”
Scanlon said in a statement that Kaiser made the donations because they aligned with the company’s “mission to improve the health of the communities we serve, in this case by educating and raising awareness to combat harmful gender stereotypes.”
Telecom giants AT&T and Comcast both gave to The Representation Project while lobbying Newsom’s office on measures that critics said sought to preserve their dominance in broadband communications in the state.
AT&T has donated over $185,000 to The Representation Project from 2017 through 2020, spokesman Steve Maviglio said. Meanwhile, donors associated with AT&T gave nearly $100,000 to Newsom’s political campaigns. The company also gave $100,000 to the governor’s inauguration fund, as well as $300,000 at Newsom’s behest to “provide tele-learning devices” to students during the pandemic lockdown.
For its part, Comcast gave more than $15,000 to The Representation Project during the same period, according to posts on the nonprofit’s website. Comcast donors have given nearly $200,000 to Newsom’s gubernatorial campaigns, while the company contributed $35,000 to Newsom’s inaugural and $26,000 at Newsom’s behest for COVID-19 awareness advertising.
In 2020, the companies helped kill a proposal to expand broadband technology in underserved areas of California and close a “digital divide” made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. The telecoms claimed the measure would actually slow the effort to provide internet in rural areas.
This year, Newsom has promised to focus on expanding broadband in poor and rural areas where spotty connections have hurt students trying to attend school remotely during the pandemic. Lawmakers are weighing a series of broadband bills that could land on Newsom’s desk, some of which AT&T and Comcast have reported lobbying on.
Ernesto Falcon, a lobbyist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said AT&T and Comcast have financial interests in broadband legislation. As a cable company, Comcast in particular stands to face more competition if the state gives local governments money to build their own broadband infrastructure, Falcon said.
Maviglio said AT&T gave to The Representation Project because it wants to create “an inclusive entertainment industry,” he wrote in a statement. “We support a number of initiatives and programs that empower emerging filmmakers from underrepresented communities,” he also wrote.
Comcast liked the nonprofit because it “helps girls get interested in the media,” a company priority, spokeswoman Joan Hammel said. She would not disclose how much the company had donated, but said the donations had nothing to do with lobbying.
In 2019, Newsom criticized PG&E for its role in sparking California’s devastating wildfires, accusing the company of “corporate greed” and declaring he would refuse its political donations.
Before that, PG&E was a generous donor both to Newsom’s political career and his wife’s nonprofit. PG&E donors pumped more than $100,000 into his race for governor, records show. Meanwhile, from 2016 through 2018, the company donated $290,000 to The Representation Project, according to filings with the Public Utilities Commission.
Even after his break with PG&E, Newsom helped negotiate legislation critics said was of tremendous benefit to the embattled public utility, which by then had filed for bankruptcy.
In 2019, Assembly Bill 1054 created a $21 billion wildfire fund as a safety net for investor-owned utilities. Critics, including some wildfire victims, called the measure a bailout for PG&E, complaining it saddled customers and taxpayers with financial responsibility for future fires.
The bill whipped through the Legislature in only two weeks and passed overwhelmingly. Newsom has credited the measure with forcing PG&E to clean up its act and take essential safety precautions to keep its equipment from sparking fires.
PG&E spokesman Ari Vanrenen said the company’s longstanding support for the nonprofit was not about politics, but part of a company effort to provide “support for underserved and traditionally disenfranchised communities.”
Other donors, well known and obscure, also gave money to The Representation Project while trying to shape policy in Sacramento.
United Airlines paid between $25,000 and $49,000 to host a “VIP Reception Sponsor” at the 2019 Representation Project gala, the nonprofit’s online posts indicate. United gave to the nonprofit to “break down barriers and promote inclusion,” spokeswoman Annabelle Cottee said. She declined to detail how much the airline donated.
United donors also gave Newsom about $12,000 for his 2018 campaign, and the airline gave $10,000 for the governor’s inaugural. At Newsom’s request, the airline last year provided free air travel for COVID-19 medical volunteers.
Meanwhile, United has lobbied the governor’s office to argue for economic relief for airlines during the pandemic, records show, and has urged state subsidies to increase production of so-called sustainable aviation fuel to cut smog and fight global warming.
Personal genetics company 23andMe donated $25,000 to The Representation Project in 2017, spokesman Andy Kill said. The company’s founder Anne Wojcicki gave $25,000 through her foundation in 2020, according to Representation Project social media posts. At the same time, the company has lobbied over language in bills that seek to protect the privacy of customers’ DNA.
The company gave money to support The Representation Project’s youth leadership summit “to foster skill development, organization and self confidence in the world’s next generation of leaders,” Kill wrote in a statement. He said the company advocated on legislation “completely separately” from its donations.
Wojcicki said in a statement that her foundation supports “the Representation Project’s mission to help all humans achieve their full potential.”
California American Water, a private water and sewer company that serves the Monterey Peninsula, gave $10,000 to The Representation Project in 2019, part of the company’s effort to promote “inclusion and diversity,” said government affairs chief Evan Jacobs. The company also donated $10,000 to Newsom’s campaign.
Meanwhile, California American is seeking state permits to build a seawater desalination plant on Monterey Bay to relieve a chronic local drought.
The project faces opposition from customers who fear hefty rate hikes and from residents of the oceanside town of Marina, where the plant would be built. They worry the project will foul local wells with seawater, said Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado. Lately the project seems stalled, he said.
Delgado said he knew the company lobbied aggressively on the issue, but he had no clue it was donating to a nonprofit to help the governor’s wife make films.
He called it a “classic” lobbying play.
“That’s how things happen,” he said. “That’s politics and influence.”
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