Facebook, Google among companies that donated millions to Gov. Newsom's coronavirus fight

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Google provided free ad credits for COVID-19 public service announcements.

Zoom gave money to connect students with technology needed for remote schooling.

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer donated to provide trailers for homeless people.

The donations are among about $26 million in contributions Gov. Gavin Newsom solicited from private organizations to help the state’s coronavirus relief efforts. That’s more than twice as much as Newsom reported in so-called “behested payments” for all of last year.

Most of the donations have been in the form of ad credits and airtime for public service announcements about COVID-19. Google and iHeartMedia were the biggest donors, each providing $7 million worth. Fox, Clear Channel, Facebook and other media companies also provided the administration free airtime and ad space for the PSAs.

Newsom has predicted that companies will ultimately donate hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars to COVID-19 response in California.

“It’s an extraordinary amount of money, energy, time and volunteer and philanthropic support that we’re seeing,” he said during a press conference last month. “It’s unprecedented. It’s in the hundreds and hundreds of millions, billions of dollars, when we are done.”

Politicians must report behested payments, the term for donations made at an elected official’s request for charitable or governmental causes, because they could be used to curry favor with a politician.

During the pandemic, the state’s growing needs for funds and medical equipment make such donations essential, said Dan Schnur, who formerly led the state’s political ethics agency and worked for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

“Even if they’re making those donations in order to buy access on legislative or regulatory matters, you still wouldn’t want to turn away those necessary supplies,” Schnur said. “There does need to be some public record of their gifts if only so it can be compared against future access and influence.”

Lobbying at the Capitol

Of the roughly 45 organizations the administration has reported as donors to COVID-19 efforts, about a third pay to lobby at the Capitol. Seven specifically reported lobbying the governor’s office this year. Google and Facebook reported lobbying the administration on COVID-19 issues.

JP Morgan Chase, which donated $250,000 to the effort to provide technology to school children, reported lobbying on Newsom’s stay-at-home order and “financial relief efforts related to COVID-19,” according to its lobbying disclosure forms.

The biggest lobbying spender of the group this legislative session, Comcast, lobbied on the California consumer privacy act and high profile labor law AB 5, among other issues. It donated more than $20,000 in ad credits for public service announcements.

Newsom has frequently praised private companies for “meeting this moment” with philanthropic contributions as the state battles the coronavirus that has killed more than 3,400 Californians. Since the pandemic began, his office has been instrumental in soliciting donations.

Early in the pandemic, Newsom’s chief of staff Ann O’Leary spent an hour on a phone call with Silicon Valley executives to discuss philanthropic efforts related to COVID-19, said Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

The Leadership Group, an advocacy group representing more than 350 companies, has raised more than $8 million in cash and donated supplies for Silicon Valley hospitals and clinics during the pandemic, according to its website. That has involved regular communication with local and state officials, Guardino said. He said he’s texted regularly with Newsom about the crisis and kept Newsom’s staffers up-to-date on philanthropic efforts by his group.

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“If there was ever a time when public and private sectors need to be working together, it’s now,” Guardino said. “The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been in my lifetime.”

The Newsom administration also reported donations of $1 million each from the Benificus Foundation and National Financial Services, LLC to the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation to supply students with technology so they can learn from home during the pandemic. Other companies and organizations, including Zoom, also contributed to that effort.

Marketing and consulting firm Anonymous Philanthropy LLC and pharmaceutical company Pfizer gave money at Newsom’s request to a nonprofit supplying trailers for homeless Californians during the pandemic. Consulting firm McKinsey, which has a long history with Newsom, “worked in tandem with the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development in assessing the economic impact of COVID-19,” according to the disclosures.

Undocumented immigrant donations

The donations reported so far are not a complete list of all the philanthropy the Newsom administration has solicited during the pandemic. Political ethics laws require elected officials to report donations over $5,000 they solicit within 30 days, so Newsom’s disclosures do not yet include some donations made within the last month. For example, contributions to the undocumented immigrant fund that Newsom announced in April are not yet reflected because they were made within the last 30 days, according to Newsom’s office.

In keeping with FPPC reporting requirements, the payment records also will not reflect volunteer work for public programs, such as the time executives from insurance company Blue Shield are volunteering on Newsom’s testing task force, spokeswoman Vicky Waters said.

California’s contract with life sciences company Verily, which is running COVID-19 testing sites throughout the state, says “Verily donated some services and costs” to launch the sites. But the administration does “not consider those services to be donations subject to potential behested payment reporting,” Waters said.

Some of Newsom’s announcements of partnerships with the private sector have generated confusion. He has previously discussed donations by private companies and goods the state is actually paying for without drawing a distinction.

When asked last month to distinguish between which companies are donating their materials and which are being compensated, Newsom declined to give specifics, saying that “each and every instance is different.”

When he announced on March 24 that Richard Branson and his company Virgin Group would fly a 747 airplane loaded with personal protective gear into Oakland, workers at the company were caught by surprise. Although Newsom mentioned that Virgin would send the state masks and test kits twice more during his daily news conferences, a spokesperson for Virgin Group who declined to be named in this article said the company has not had any conversations with California government about the pandemic except related to Virgin Orbit’s ventilator production.

Virgin Atlantic operated two flights to fly equipment to the UK and to New York, but none to California, the spokesperson said.

It’s not the first time during the pandemic Newsom has described a commitment from a prominent businessperson that didn’t come to fruition. Last month, he said Tesla founder Elon Musk had donated 1,000 ventilators to California. But three weeks later, a spokesman for Newsom’s office said it had no record Musk delivered the ventilators.

Newsom’s office has not reported any donations from Musk or Branson, and Waters confirmed that the flight Newsom previously mentioned never happened.

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