The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Irvine Co. donations generate publicity but little evidence of giving

Photo by Keith MayFollowing the April 11 defeat of a tax designed to bail out Irvine's financially troubled school district, the Irvine Co. and its reclusive billionaire owner, Donald Bren, promised to donate $1.9 million to the district and help raise roughly another $2 million from other corporate and private sources.

The story received prominent attention in both The Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times, the Times touting the company's "civic generosity" in an April 14 front-page article. Apparently unable to see the difference between an actual donation and a pledge, the Times headline was celebratory: "$3.9 Million Is Donated to Irvine Schools: Surprise act by Irvine Co., Donald Bren Foundation and district group alleviates need for cuts in wake of tax defeat for at least a year."

There's good reason for skepticism. This appears to be the very same money the company has pledged several times over the past nine years. In exchange, the local dailies have rewarded the company with at least 20 separate stories touting its generosity and commitment to education. But no one could say precisely how much money, if any, the company has actually contributed.

Those who ought to know best, officials of the Irvine Unified School District, said they have never actually kept records of whether the Irvine Co. has fulfilled any of its numerous, well-publicized pledges over the years. "We've never tracked it," said Ron Smiley, director of the district's financial services office. Staffers in the office of superintendent Patricia Clark White also could not confirm whether the company had followed through with its pledges.

Irvine Co. officials responded with questions of their own—like what the headline of this article would be—but no answers.

The company first pledged $2 million in 1991 and scored five articles in the dailies following the announcement. The papers were generous in their coverage: on Sept. 26, 1991, the Register reported that the Irvine Co. "intends to give" the money. A week later, on Oct. 3, the Reg published a nearly identical story, this time saying that the money had been "pledged." On Oct. 16, the Times reported that the company had "given" the money. Two weeks later, it published a story claiming that the developers had "offered" the money with a stipulation not mentioned before: $2 million in exchange for a guarantee that the public would not fight plans to build more than 3,850 new homes in the area.

After the 1991 cycle, the company got highly favorable ink in both papers for the same pledge on Dec. 3, 1992; Dec. 17, 1992; Oct. 7, 1993; Dec. 22, 1993; March 29, 1994; Aug. 18, 1994; and Feb. 24, 1995. On Feb. 22, 1997, a story appeared in the Times referring to the company's "pledge made in 1996," saying that it "will be fulfilled by August 1998."

But in 1998, the company got another round of articles touting the same old pledge. On July 15, Aug. 13 and Sept. 16, the company received a total of six Times and Register stories about its "generous" corporate giving. No one—at the company, the district or the foundation—could provide evidence that Irvine Co. money arrived in city schools.

And apparently it still hasn't. The pipeline for the most recent proposed donation was to be the Irvine Co.'s Irvine Public Schools Foundation. The foundation itself is an enigma. It was reportedly established by the company three years ago with a $1 million endowment. But Greg Bradbard, the group's executive director, couldn't confirm the size of the original endowment; wasn't sure exactly how much money the company has given his organization, but figured it's "in the ballpark of $2 [million] to $3 million"; couldn't say how much of that has gone directly to the school district; and confirmed that the $1.9 million touted last month by the Times as a "surprise act" was really yet another renewal of the 1991 pledge. He put a favorable spin on the company's tardiness: "They're now going to accelerate paying that gift," he said.

Asked for a specific amount and dates when the company's contributions were made to his foundation, Bradbard smiled awkwardly, exhaled and placed his hands out palms-up, and said, "I have nothing formal." Wondering if we were "going after the Irvine Co.," Bradbard said, "Well, I can tell you that they are really important to us. They help in so many ways, not just with financial support."

We told Bradbard that we were merely trying to get an answer to what we thought would be a readily available fact about the developer's highly touted corporate giving. He told us he would estimate that the company's gifts make up about two-thirds of the foundation's annual budget, a figure he "can't recall" exactly. The executive director continues, however, to maintain that he has no documentation of the contributions. Given hours to search his office, he was unable to produce any records.

Pressed further, Bradbard acknowledged that a majority of the money donated by the company hasn't been donated at all. It has only been pledged. He said jovially, "We think they're good for it."

You can usually count on Irvine Co. executive Gary Hunt—arguably the most powerful man in Orange County—to offer a beautifully pithy soundbite when it comes to any story that will polish the company's controversial image. But Hunt wasn't available for this article. His office referred us to Irvine Co. vice president of government relations Franz Wisner, whose office referred us to Rich Elbaum, the company's public-relations specialist. We told Elbaum's secretary that all we wanted to know were the dates and amounts of all Irvine Co. financial contributions to the foundation and to the Irvine Unified School District. She said she didn't think it was a simple question at all and insisted that we tell her the headline we planned to use for our then-unwritten story. Elbaum never picked up the phone to answer the question.

So here goes: if this story had been adapted for the staid business publication Forbes, we might have called it "How to Get Maximum Public-Relations Mileage out of Corporate Giving: The Irvine Co. Story." But for our purposes, let's title it "The 'Gift' That Keeps on Giving."

Will your boss answer the question now?

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