Trouble on the Iowa Part III

  • 10/30/2014
  • Reporters Desk

Casino Politics in Iowa and the Battleship’s Directors

By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
In the second installment of the Trouble on the Iowa series, Random Lengths recounted both the well documented series of events as well as some of the untold back story that ultimately brought the USS Iowa to San Pedro.

In that story, the rival Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square group in Vallejo, Robert Kent (aka Robert Daniels), Jonathan Williams were the dominant figures, we told their stories against the backdrop that was a perfect storm of political circumstances—a backdrop upon which Kent masterfully created a grassroots movement that brought the USS Iowa to San Pedro.

As a result of the story, a number of volunteers, both former and current, reached out to the newspaper to share their experiences working on the Battleship Iowa. Those experiences also included questions about the khaki pants wearing officers and head honchos steering the ship—management types from somewhere beyond Southern California.

PBC Board and Who Are They?

Without question, the Battleship Center’s board chairman and secretary Jeff Lamberti and Becky Beach are the two political heavyweights on this board and also the most instrumental in getting the USS Iowa to San Pedro, but the question remained, “Who are they?”

In the Oct. 16 edition, Random Lengths described the circumstance that brought the battleship to San Pedro as a political perfect storm. The previous stories did not address the political and business relationships that connect them all. Generally, a nonprofit organization’s board of directors operates as a brain trust filled with knowledge, political connections and business associations that can give an organization institutional money and access to power. The Pacific Battleship Center is no different.

Lamberti and Beach, principals in the political consulting and fundraising firm Riverside Partners, joined the Pacific Battleship Center shortly after Robert Kent formed the nonprofit battleship museum. However, the Battleship Center wasn’t their first foray into the waters of securing decommissioned warships.

Merylin Wong, president of the rival Vallejo group pursuing the USS Iowa through the first decade of the 2000s, recalled working with Riverside Partners between 2007 and 2008 and feeling uncomfortable working with them after feeling pressured to hire a particular lobbyist at their behest.

“They tried to convince us and they were adamant about it that we had to shell out $25,000 to pay a lobbyist to get the State of Iowa to legislate the money for the ship,” Wong said. “They were adamant about it.”

Wong explained that Lamberti and Beach, as Riverside Partners, were raising money from the public in the state of Iowa and using that money to pay this person, and of course, themselves through their commissions to set all of that up.

“Why would we want to do that?” asked Wong, rhetorically. “We’re already recognized by your state. Why would we want to pay a third party?

Wong recalls Lamberti and Beach telling her that if her group expects to get anything done she had to hire this guy.

“ The way I looked at it was them just lining their own pockets,” Wong said. “Here, we’re doing it for the passion and the love of the project and all of you people are thinking about is, ‘how are you going to get paid?’”

The relationship between Lamberti, Beach and the Pacific Battleship Center is a strange one. To Wong, Riverside Partners were looking to be paid well for their services to her organization. To the Pacific Battleship Center, they appeared to be bending over backwards, but why?

The Pacific Battleship Center brought Riverside Partners on board as consultants shortly after they were founded in 2009. Yet, by 2012, according to the Battleship Center’s 990 income tax form, instead of getting paid by the Pacific Battleship Center, they were receiving loan monies from Riverside Partners and Lamberti as an individual in the amount of $800,000. And, Beach used her credit card to help the USS Iowa complete the final leg of its journey to San Pedro, Battleship Center board member Douglas Herman said.

Former elected official and political players don’t generally become consultants just to service a good cause.

Lamberti, who is a lawyer and heads the law firm Block, Lamberti, & Gocke, served two terms as a state senator in the State of Iowa and as Republican senate leader for one term. Before that, he served two terms in the state house. In the 2006 midterm election, Lamberti was the Republican nominee for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District. He lost that race to incumbent Democrat Leonard Boswell.

After his defeat, Gov. Terry Branstad nominated Lamberti to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission and was elected its chairman in 2012.

Lamberti also is the son of Don Lamberti, founder of Casey’s General Stores in Ankeny, Iowa.

This past May, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa newspaper, The Gazette, published a series of stories regarding the Gaming and Casinos commission April 17 vote on whether to grant a proposed Cedar Rapids casino a state gaming license. Lamberti, who voted no with the majority 4-1, against the proposal, has been dogged by conflict of interest allegations ever since.

The allegations center on donations made to the Pacific Battleship Center by two casinos that opposed the Cedar Rapids venture.

Lamberti has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying that the four commissioners who voted against the proposal as a result of the findings of two independent studies that a Cedar Rapids casino would damage nearby casinos.

At the time, Lamberti said that Bill Knapp of Knapp Properties, invested in the proposed Cedar Rapids casino, and also donated to the USS Iowa at the same time in the summer of 2013. He further noted that Knapp donated for the same purpose as Riverside Casino & Golf Resort and Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, both opposed the new casino.

At that point, the Iowa Legislature had already provided a $3 million grant to the Pacific Battleship Center. Lamberti said he personally guaranteed a $300,000 loan to contribute to the effort of refurbishing the battleship. Lamberti told the Gazette that he pays the interest on the loan, which now amounts to $20,000 to $30,000 per annum so the battleship museum doesn’t have to pay the expense.

Lamberti was also quoted as saying that he and Beach agreed to reduce the amount Riverside Partners was owed for consulting, though he said it is unclear if the ship museum will ever be able to pay them.

Lamberti told The Gazette, at the time, that any fundraising fees related to contributions from casino interests may go to Beach working on her own, but none have or will go to him, even though they are the principals of Riverside Partners.

“We’ve been very careful to make sure that if there are any of those activities (casino contributions), there is a complete wall between me and those funds,” Lamberti said. “And those (casino) funds can never be used to pay Riverside Partners.”

According public records, the Williams Knapp Foundation donated $35,000 to the Pacific Battleship Center, while Riverside Casino CEO, Dan Kehl donated $100,000 to the Battleship Center in 2012 through the Kehl Family Foundation. Local news outlets in Iowa at the time reported that Prairie Meadows and Riverside Casino together donated $110,000 just before the April 17 vote. The connection between these monies and the Gaming Casino Commission vote has never been made clear.

 

Becky Beach Pals Around in Conservative Circles

Rebecca “Becky” Beach, the Pacific Battleship Center’s Board Secretary, is a fundraiser, event planner and consultant, but her political connections run deep and more extensive than Lamberti’s though she has never had public office.

Beach served as a personal assistant to former First Lady Barbara Bush since George H.W. Bush began running for the 1980 presidency of the United States. Though Bush didn’t win that election, Beach went on to become the Ronald Reagan administration’s liaison to the U.S. Department of Energy.

After working in the Reagan and Bush administrations, Becky returned to her home state in 1993 and worked in the Iowa Senate from 1995-2007. In 1997 she became administrative assistant to the president of the Iowa Senate – first for Sen. Mary Kramer and then for Sen. Jeff Lamberti.

During this same time, Beach worked on George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign for president, handling scheduling and event planning.

After 11 years in the Iowa Senate, Beach formed her own company, RSB Associates. The company continues to do political work and has added non-profit clients and issue advocacy groups.

Beach is a national advisor with ShePac and has very close ties to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her political action committee, called SarahPac. ShePac was set up to help Republican women get elected to office, as well as, shore up Republican Party’s image to women.

SarahPac aims to elect candidates that subscribe to Palin’s brand of conservatism, which promotes a hawkish foreign policy grounded in “American Exceptionalism.”

Beach’s current projects include the Puppy Jake Foundation, Terrace Hill Restoration project, On with Life capital campaign, the arena Iowa Barnstormers (arena football team), the Pacific Battleship Center, and Paws and Effect foundation.

She is currently on the Finance Committee for the George W. Bush Library Center in Dallas.

Beach’s resume is extensive, but it should be understood that she comes from a political family.

Beach is the granddaughter of Mary Louis Smith, one of Iowa’s most famous figures — the first woman ever to lead the national Republican establishment. In 1971, Vice President Gerald Ford appointed her to chair the Republican National Committee. During that time as chairwoman, she helped revive an organization that “had been smashed earlier that year with (Richard) Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal,” as the New York Times Magazine would observe after Smith’s death in 1997.

Smith worked hard to make the GOP more inclusive as it moved to the right by supporting affirmative action and the Equal Rights Amendment. After naming her vice chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1982, Reagan didn’t reappoint her.

 

The Rest of the Board

From interviews with volunteers from the Battleship Center, there isn’t much interaction between them and the board members. Tom Epperson and Nate Jones are perhaps the most visible of the board members to the volunteers.

Epperson, an Orange County resident and McDonnell-Douglas retiree, has 20 years of experience and connections as a vice president of operations for the aerospace manufacturer.

In his most recent stint, Epperson headed the company’s Sydney, Australia office as vice president of commercial Marketing, South Pacific Operations. According to a 1996 newswire story, Epperson had worked in government contracts, finance and as program manager for the A-4 Skyhawk project in 30-plus years.

With a doctorate in law from Western State University College of Law and bachelor of science in business management from Cal State University Long Beach, Epperson has strong ties to Southern California.

 

Board Member Nate Jones—Long Beach Grand Prix

Nathan Jones, who has a penchant for wearing cowboy attire, was one of the original board members of the Pacific Battleship Center. He is the head of operations of the Long Beach Grand Prix and is one of the original investors that brought the Grand Prix to the city. Jones is noted for his skills ability to efficiently place people and equipment at the right place, at the right time, like a well-oiled machine.

The Grand Prix CEO Jim Michaelian was quoted in a profile about Jones that, “Nate really is our jack-of-all trades. If we have an operational problem, he fixes it. He’s responsible for the movement of the cars from the paddock area to the start line. He has to keep track of a million things and he’s great at it.”

Jones, a Belmont Shore resident, was involved with bringing the USS Iowa to Southern California since at least 2010, before the ship even arrived.

“I got hooked on battleships when I was 10 years old and went to the Long Beach Naval Shipyard to see the USS Missouri,” said Jones, a Long Beach native. “An officer took us all over the ship. I became a Missouri junkie and got a chance to actually steer the ship years later in the open sea. I was so nervous I froze at the wheel. It was an awesome experience.”

Jones, owner Nate Jones Tires in Signal Hill, also has a deep interest in passing along his love of cars and strong work ethic to the younger generation through a nonprofit he has created, “Kids, Hands and Minds Together.”

He said he wants “to save hands-on education from extinction. Too many young people don’t know how to use their hands to do things. They’re afraid to get their hands dirty.”

 

Board Member Craig Johnson—Crail-Johnson Foundation

Crail-Johnson Foundation board chairman, Craig C. Johnson is also on the Pacific Battleship Center. As a donor of $250,000 grant financing the Pacific Battleship Center’s aboard overnight program for students, the foundation fulfills its stated mission of promoting the “well-being of children in need, through the effective application of human and financial resources.”

The Crail-Johnson Foundations gives away millions of dollars every year to scores of nonprofit organizations throughout the Los Angeles Harbor Area.

Johnson is also the head of the real estate investment firm, Crail Capital LLC.

Board Member Douglas Herman—Pacific Strategy Group

Battleship Center board member, Douglas Herman is a veteran political strategist, who runs the West Coast office of the political consulting firm, The Strategy Group, in Los Angeles. Campaigns & Elections Magazine named him one of the top 50 influencers in California. And, just as his bio says, political candidates, progressive organizations and elected leaders in California and across the country rely on Herman’s political expertise to communicate effectively with decision makers, the media and voters to win campaigns.

The Strategy Group assisted the Battleship Center’s lobbying efforts on the local, state and federal level.

Indeed, Herman was the board member assigned to speak to Random Lengths before the first story in the Trouble on the Iowa series was published.

According to his biography, the Strategy Group’s website, Doug was one of the chief mail strategists for Obama for America in both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. For the past two election cycles, Herman has worked with the California Labor Federation, served as a lead advisor to defeat the anti-union ballot Proposition 32.

In 2012, he led the winning 2012 statewide campaign to reform term limits in California.

A native Iowan, Doug remains deeply engaged in Iowa politics, including serving as an advisor to Rep. Bruce Braley. Doug managed the direct mail for Sen. John Kerry’s come-from-behind victory in the 2004 Iowa presidential caucuses, helping convince thousands of veterans to show up for their first-ever caucus to support fellow veteran John Kerry, boosting him to a victory that helped sew up the Democratic nomination for president. That fall, Doug created direct mail for the Kerry-Edwards ticket in the crucial battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Herman lives in La Crescenta, Calif.

 

Board member Vanessa Lewis—Aquarium of the Pacific

Vanessa Lewis is the principal of Reporting Maven, business operations consulting company with particular expertise in ticketing, fundraising, accounting software in the museum and attraction industry.

From 2000 to 2008, she was the chief financial officer for the Aquarium of the Pacific. Before that, she was financial analyst for Black and Decker Hardware and Home Improvement, where she worked with a sales team to provide finance support for reporting, analysis, budgeting and strategy.

As the email exchanges between Lewis and Pacific Battleship Center’s vice president of development shows.

 

Rear Admiral Gerald Gneckow

Rear Admiral Gerald E. Gneckow is a board member with a deep connection and vested interest in the USS Iowa. Gneckow served as the commanding officer of the USS Iowa from 1984 to 1986 and is former president of the Veterans Association of the USS Iowa. He is still on the Association’s board of directors.

The Veterans Association played an important role in generating local veteran support and the grassroots muscle needed to push local elected officials to get behind the USS Iowa. Gneckow wasn’t the association’s only representative on the board. Dave Canfield, who is serving on the Battleship Center’s executive staff as the vice president of Internet and Technology Security and chief information officer.  Gneckow and Moss provided the military credibility it otherwise would have lacked.

The volunteers that signed up to work on the USS Iowa, both veteran and non-veterans alike did so out of a deep love for the battleship. But nonprofit organizations, dependent on the largess of business and government, operate in a highly political space.

In this space, nonprofits, particularly ones with no seemingly overt ideological underpinnings, connect political figures and interest groups across every partisan divide. Yet this is also how in the matrix of money, power and influence nonprofits can get hung up on scandal or the appearance of unethical relationships.

The Iowa casino donations,  their timing and amounts involved, calls Jeff Lamberti’s role on the Pacific Battleship Center into question. Under scrutiny both Lamberti and Becky Beach’s role at the Battleship Center look entangled in larger issues in that they contributed a great deal of their own wealth, time and connections to a project that is not even in their home state.

Both Beach and Lamberti have extensively involved with nonprofit organizations in Iowa that serve the public good. But when paired with their more far right political circles and involvements, one can’t help but to wonder if the Pacific Battleship Center is but a piece in a network that materially and ideologically supports right wing, or there own personal, agendas.

However, without a proven link between the Iowa casino’s large donations and the personal financial gain of either Beach  or Lamberti and the Iowa Gaming Commission, we are left with the appearance of some impropriety and the suspicion that there is something hidden aboard the battleship that has yet to be revealed.

 

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