August 8, 2011; Source: Los Angeles Times | This year, as many nonprofits are struggling to raise money, two inner-city charter schools in Oakland, Calif. are having outstanding fundraising years. They are receiving major gifts from energy companies, telecommunications interests and Indian tribes. Watchdog groups are wondering if these corporate donors are receiving more than just good feelings and tax deductions for their gifts.

Governor Jerry Brown has raised nearly $1.5 million for the Oakland Military Institute and $1 million for the Oakland School of the Arts, inner-city charter schools he helped start during his tenure as mayor of Oakland. Brown insists that these gifts haven’t influenced his decision-making as governor.

New names on the Oakland Military Institute donor list include the California State Pipe Trades Council, which gave $90,000, and GTECH, the California lottery operator that donated $25,000. Indian tribes and card club owners are at the top of the list; they have contributed over $290,000 to the two Oakland schools this year. A bill to legalize online poker is currently languishing in the legislature.

The governor is not the only one raising money for his favorite charities. Over $6.8 million was raised by state lawmakers for various nonprofits during the first seven months of 2011. Unlike direct campaign contributions, there aren’t any monetary restrictions on these donations. And, donors aren’t obligated to notify lawmakers for gifts given to charity. But they do, which implies they want something in return, say experts.

“This is definitely a new kind of influence peddling,” says Derek Cressman, spokesman for Common Cause, a government watchdog group. He adds that these groups make charitable donations for the same reasons they give to political campaigns. “You’ve got elected officials soliciting money from someone. People find a way to do nice things back to people they feel grateful for.”

Not all of Governor Brown’s friends have a political motive in mind. Hot-yoga guru Bikram Choudhury, a friend of Jerry’s for over 30 years, donated to the Oakland arts school. Brown’s spokesman notes that there isn’t any “secret yoga agenda.” Namaste. – Nancy Knoche