Orange County Blogger Chris Emami (Red County OC) posted a story on this subject a couple of months ago. In full disclosure, I will be using some of his background and parts of his story here. But my take is slightly different.
Our San Diego media can be an interesting bunch. Especially when it comes to what they choose to cover and not cover. Over the past two months the San Diego Union-Tribune and North County Times have accepted money for advertising that opposes a master planned community called Merriam Mountains. This morning the UT has a story on the development.
The newspaper ads in opposition to the project indicate they are being paid by the “Golden Door Spa,” near the proposed rural North County site. Yet, in reality they are being paid by the spa’s owner, Blackstone Group, an international billion dollar hedge fund based in New York City (which also recently purchased Sea World from Anheuser-Busch). It is evident that reporters for both newspapers are aware of this fact, but largely refused until this morning’s UT story to cover the issue as to why Blackstone is opposed to a local housing project.
Most interesting, is that Blackstone has propped up various front groups and funneled tens of thousands of dollars to these groups for websites, direct mail, and busing of opponents to hearings while providing them free meals, among other goodies. Frankly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Blackstone opposing something it does not like. Yet, it does seem news worthy that they have hidden the inconvenient truth that a billion dollar conglomerate is at the heart of the opposition.
This past week both the UT and NC Times ran full page ads, attacking the project. Identified as a paid political advertisement funded by the Golden Door Spa, these ads use the good name of the spa and purport to be locally generated. Turns out, the Golden Door hasn’t been locally owned since Deborah Szekely sold it in 1998 for $30 million to Wyndham.
Current owners Blackstone acquired Wyndham International and its assets including the Golden Door Spa in 2005. When Blackstone bought Wyndham, it did what it usually does, sold off at least half of the assets, and renamed the rest LXR Luxury. They hung onto the Golden Door Spa, maybe because it’s a recognized name.
The Blackstone Group has cleverly been hiding their activities with fronts just like this for some time while waging a covert war in North County.
The first attempt was in 2005 by a group called Save Our Valley. This group got exposed as a shell group when the Fallbrook post office box used for return mail and a website was tracked back to Keith Battle, a longtime North County politico. Battle has worked with Nancy Chase, the developer of Gregory Canyon, who in 2006 opposed the widening of Deer Springs Road on behalf of the Golden Door. Save Our Valley has since disappeared. The website’s registered owner has changed and if you Google the website, www.saveourvalley.us you’ll see it has been dismantled.
Blackstone didn’t make the same mistake the next time, when it appears they created Citizens Against Stonegate Traffic (CAST). They used “Who is Privacy Protection Service, Inc.” to hide the Administrative Contact and only the address to the privacy protection company in Bellevue, Washington. CAST has created a slick website, sent tens of thousands of mailers and is offering free rides to the Board of Supervisors hearing on the development, at a cost estimated to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
The exact same privacy protection company for CAST is listed as the Administrative Contact for Good Planning Now www.goodplanningnow.com. Maybe this one isn’t funded by Blackstone, but if this group is spontaneous and funded by community members, there is no reason to hide who owns and operates these websites. How is it that a retired gentleman named Richard Coffman of the Coalition for Wildfire Safety could afford to send out a professionally produced mass mailing to over 20,000 people and emails to people in the community offering free bus rides to the October 9 Planning Commission hearing? Recently, he retained an attorney to make outlandish accusations to the Deer Springs Fire Protection District. Who is footing the bill for all of this?
Now, Blackstone has taken out very expensive political advertisements in the local media. Yet, this time they’re not trying to create a front group, since they already have those up and running. They’re hiding behind the Golden Door’s name to try to gain sympathy.
If you search the website referred to in an advertisement, www.voiceofdoom.com, the owner is a guy named Lee Stitzenberger. A quick Google search shows he’s a Sacramento lobbyist, political consultant and CEO of the Dolphin Group in Los Angeles http://dolphingroup.org. Past clients include Altria (the renamed cigarette company Philip Morris), Wal-Mart, Marriott, and numerous political campaigns. Of most interest is his role as campaign manager for Proposition 188, a counter to California’s strict workplace anti-smoking ban AB 13. Funded by Philip Morris and Big Tobacco, in 1994 this effort ultimately failed, but Stitzenberger and his strategy were subject to LA Times articles back in 1994. He also worked to fight Santa Monica’s living wage ordinance.
Is Blackstone going to all this effort because of one relatively (to them) small holding, a spa? Or, do they have other long term plans to kill the project and purchase the land for their own unknown project?
Amazing how the media can just let all of this simply slip under their noses. Are advertising dollars stronger then the sword?