LOS ANGELES—The newspaper ads promised a new summer program at Point Dume for poor children, funded in part by the Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation.
In some ads, a smiling Sterling is shown next to a horse. In others, the foundation describes the project as “the 20 Acre Malibu Farm & Horse Ranch Estate As A Free Summer Camp For Underprivileged Kids Ages 6-14.”
Initially the ads said the camp would open in 2014, offering horseback riding, golf, a new pool and tennis court, even a heli-pad; more recently, they said it would debut in 2016.
But Malibu officials said Sterling has filed no proposals with the city for the project. And Darren Schield, the Sterling foundation’s chief financial officer, said he had no specific information about plans for the Malibu ranch. Sterling did not respond to requests for comment.
In scores of advertisements in the Los Angeles Times and other publications, the Sterling Foundation has promoted its namesake’s good works. They feature pictures of the billionaire Clippers owner and numerous recipients of his largess, including groups that serve minorities and the underprivileged. One proclaimed “$20 million in scholarships and grants” and “all grants given.”
But the reality of the charity’s giving is harder to glean.
The foundation’s payments have been far more modest than the ads’ sometimes vague wording could lead readers to believe.
From 2009, when Sterling began funding the foundation, through the end of 2012, it gave out about $1.4 million, according to tax records. It appears some of the ads counted both grants already given and ones promised in the future to generate the higher numbers.
Most were grants of $5,000 to $20,000 to dozens of community groups and schools, including Para Los Ninos, the United Negro College Fund and the Union Rescue Mission.
Some organizations that received the foundation’s money said they were grateful. But others said they became turned off by what they considered Sterling’s relentless self-promotion, even before the NBA gave the Clippers owner a lifetime suspension last week for a recording in which a man determined by the NBA to be Sterling told a female friend not to associate with black people in public.
Schield said the charity did not pay for the newspaper ads and had nothing to do with their content.
“I can’t comment on those,” he said.
Sterling began funding the charity the same year he paid $2.7 million to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit. Sterling, whose company owns numerous luxury apartment buildings across Southern California, has been dogged by allegations in lawsuits that he refused to rent to blacks, Latinos and families with children.
“Mr. Sterling told me to tell them he’d prefer not to have dark-skinned people in his buildings because they smell,” Sumner Davenport, a former property supervisor for Sterling, said in a 2003 deposition in the discrimination cases.
Among the recipients of Sterling’s charitable money was 100 Black Men of Los Angeles, a youth mentoring program, in 2009. Some members said in interviews that they were initially hesitant to take the money after hearing about the housing discrimination allegations against Sterling, but they decided it was more important to get scholarships to disadvantaged students.
Soon a photo of the organization’s president began appearing in large advertisements in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. Group members were disturbed by what they saw as the message: “Look at all the African Americans I’m helping,” said the group’s current president, Pastor Jewett Walker Jr.
Walker said the organization asked Sterling to stop using its name and logo in his ads, but the request was ignored. Then the group heard that former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, a Hall of Fame NBA player, had sued Sterling for wrongful termination and had accused him of fostering a “plantation mentality” in the Clippers organization. (Baylor later dropped the claim that he was a victim of racial bias from his lawsuit).
Walker said 100 Black Men returned the money and sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that Sterling stop using its name and logo in his ads.
“I think he was pimping us to get credit for helping the African American community,” he added.
Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan said in a statement that “it is the advertiser’s responsibility to secure permissions from any person whose image is utilized in their advertising.” Sullivan also said The Times does not disclose information about its advertising customers.
In another case, the Sterling foundation donated $10,000 a year to A Place Called Home, a nonprofit organization for disadvantaged children in South L.A., according to tax records.
“Suddenly, my picture showed up in the L.A. Times in those ads,” said Jonathan Zeichner, the group’s executive director. “Once a year I would go to a luncheon where he dispensed the checks.”
Like many who received the money, Zeichner said he was shocked by the recording released last week. He said it crystallized the lingering feeling that this effort was designed to boost Sterling’s image.
“We were a bit of a beard for him.” he said. “Clearly those ads are about letting people know he is a good guy.”
It’s difficult to determine definitively how much Sterling has given to charities. It is possible that Sterling has made other charitable contributions as an individual — rather than through his foundation — that would not appear in the public tax filings. Sterling also could be paying for the ads himself; his office did not respond to requests for information.
Schield said he assumes that Sterling has made personal donations to charities and has given money to the separate Los Angeles Clippers Foundation.
He cited as one example of Sterling’s personal philanthropy a $425,000 donation in 2013 to UCLA for kidney research. The university said it was to be the first installment of a $3-million pledge to be paid over seven years. UCLA returned the money and canceled the pledge after the furor erupted over Sterling’s recorded comments.
But it was the work of the foundation that Sterling heavily promoted.
Schield said the organization has yet to file its 2013 tax return but believed it would show an increase in giving over previous years.
Some of the Sterling foundation ads placed in 2012 say the group was committed to making $10 million in donations, significantly more than the $1.4 million in contributions listed in its federal tax records.
Zeichner said that in the case of his group, the foundation appeared to count the entire gift — $10,000 a year for 10 years — as one lump sum when describing it.
More recently, ads have said the foundation was committed to spending $17 million. Other ads listed the total at $20 million. Those ads mention only the foundation, so it’s unclear whether those sums include personal giving by Sterling.
Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, said his organization appreciated the money the foundation provided, $20,000 through 2012, according to tax records. Still, he said his dealings with Sterling were not always ideal.
About six years ago, newspaper ads started appearing about a downtown homeless center Sterling wanted to build. Bales said Sterling also talked to skid row nonprofits about helping him raise $50 million for a Donald Sterling Homeless Center. Bales and other officials on skid row found the project highly unrealistic, and Sterling eventually dropped it.
“We keep doing good with whatever revenue we get from sometimes imperfect people,” Bales added. He said he was disturbed by Sterling’s comments but “we wouldn’t want to rob Mr. Sterling of the good he has done in the past.”
The foundation’s latest tax return says its officers are Sterling, his wife Rochelle, Schield and lawyer Douglas Walton. In some of the ads, V. Stiviano, the woman whose audio recording of Sterling set off the scandal, is identified in photo captions as a member of the foundation. In others, she’s identified as a representative of Catholic Charities or Our Lady of Angels.
The Clippers have a separate foundation, incorporated in 1994. Sterling’s involvement with it could not be determined from its tax filings, but his foundation gave it $10,000 in 2009.
In fiscal 2011-12, the Clippers foundation had net assets of nearly $1.2 million and spent about $633,000 on its charitable programs, including grants to groups such as Feed the Children Inc. and the Special Olympics of Southern California, according to its most recently available tax return.
It’s run by a board made up of Clippers employees, according to tax records. In some of the ads for the Malibu youth camp, the Clippers foundation is listed as a co-sponsor.
Charity watchdogs say Sterling’s penchant for advertising his philanthropic efforts is unusual.
“He is somewhat unique in how much he’s bragging about his philanthropy,” said Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, an online evaluator of nonprofit groups. “He’s shouting from the rooftops, ‘Look how generous I am!’”
(Times staff writers Richard Winton, Nathan Fenno, Larry Gordon and Ryan Menezes contributed to this report.)