The first meetings of the city of San Diego's Human Relations Commission were disrupted by a breakdown in relations among humans.
It was the early 1990s and the City Council had voted to create the 15-member HRC to promote cultural sensitivity and investigate discrimination complaints. But, according to a press report from the time, the sessions descended into a chaos of "shouting matches and name calling" between gay-rights activists and Christian fundamentalists.
At the center of the conflict was one particular human: Gary G. Kreep, Esq.
Kreep was an unapologetically Christian, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-illegal-immigrant, anti-affirmative-action lawyer from Escondido. His detractors—which included a majority of his fellow commissioners—believed he'd been inappropriately appointed by a City Council member who'd opposed the commission's creation from the beginning.
"The Human Relations Commission was to bring all people together, all walks of life," says Norma Rossi, the former head of the San Diego Homeless Coalition, who served with Kreep. The lawyer, she says, "was trying to create a ruckus."
Twenty years later, Kreep is poised to spark a ruckus all over again. Last February, encouraged by political operative and longtime friend Jim Sills, Kreep filed paperwork to run for judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County. In the June primary election, he took the legal community by surprise when he eked out a victory over a veteran prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Garland Peed. The margin was two-fifths of 1 percent.
"Mr. Kreep seems to be a person who has an agenda," attorney Len Simon says. "Judges should not have an agenda; they should decide cases based on law and the facts. Judges with an agenda can be an embarrassment to the court."
In 1979, Kreep founded the United States Justice Foundation to serve as the right wing's answer to the American Civil Liberties Union. Through the nonprofit, he's inserted himself into some of the greatest political and constitutional controversies in American history. The group, which rents office space in a building that Kreep owns in Ramona, has represented the gamut of right-wing clients, from defending members of the nativist Minutemen Civil Defense Force to writing briefs in support of Texas' sodomy laws for the Pro-Family Law Center. He petitioned the U.S. Senate in 1989 to reopen its investigation of the so-called "Chappaquiddick incident," in which Sen. Ted Kennedy had been involved in a fatal car accident. In 2005, he launched the Hillary Clinton Accountability Project and filed a lawsuit against Clinton, alleging campaign-finance fraud. In recent years, Kreep has gained notoriety for mounting legal challenges to President Barack Obama's eligibility for the presidency, claiming he was born in Kenya. The press has dubbed it the "Birther" movement due to Kreep and his followers' fixation on Obama's birth certificate. Through an assortment of political committees, Kreep has also supported the election of Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Allen West, Herman Cain and Gov. Sarah Palin.
Throughout the 2012 election cycle, Kreep has walked a thin line in terms of permissible political activity for judicial candidates, as proscribed by the California Code of Judicial Ethics. Kreep and his Tea Party colleagues have also exploited loopholes in federal and state campaign-finance regulations to escape filing deadlines and disclosure requirements.
Whether he's crossed the line is for the reader to judge.
History repeats. Kreep has been here before.
"Gary knew what he was going to face," former San Diego City Councilmember Bruce Henderson says. "He had the courage to walk into that environment knowing he would be vilified and knowing all these things would be focused on digging into his background to find anything negative about him, and he was willing to step up."
The sentiment would aptly describe Kreep's judgeship, but Henderson's remarking on 1991, when Sills, Henderson's top aide, identified Kreep as a potential candidate for the Human Relations Commission. Henderson was against the commission, which he believed would seek out and punish Christians who opposed homosexuality. Though he never sat down with Kreep to discuss the breadth of his beliefs, Henderson found Kreep shared his opposition to affirmative action.
"Gary tended to agree with me on those sorts of issues," Henderson says. "I wanted a voice on the Human Relations Commission that spoke up to say all discrimination is wrong; certainly, reverse discrimination is just as wrong as any other."
Gay-rights activists, the Anti-Defamation League and Kreep's fellow commissioners saw Kreep as a negative force who'd been appointed under false pretenses. According to a 1991 San Diego Union-Tribune article, Kreep had omitted his relationship with the United States Justice Foundation from his application materials. Had it been disclosed, his critics didn't believe the council would've signed off.
"He didn't believe in the Human Relations Commission's establishment or goals," says Katie Klumpp, a lifelong anti-racism activist who served with Kreep. "If he had been in a position to vote for or against having such a commission, he wouldíve voted against it. That created a kind of awkwardness when all the rest of the commissioners had a commitment to what was trying to be established."
The commission tried to boot Kreep by passing a resolution that urged the City Council to reconsider all of its members' qualifications. Meeting minutes show that the proposal brought out more than 80 observers. During public comment, eight people spoke against Kreep, eight people spoke in favor of him and three people pleaded with everyone to put the matter aside and "get on with the Commissionís business." The vote passed 10-4, with one member absent, but Mayor Maureen O'Connor declined to add it to the council's docket.
As the commission moved forward, Kreep consistently voted against LGBT and pro-immigrant measures and ardently defended the Boy Scouts of America's anti-gay policies. He also demanded on several occasions that the commission investigate "Satanic crimes" as hate crimes. After the City Attorney's office issued an opinion that Satanism was outside of the commission's purview, Kreep changed his focus to "anti-Christian bias." At one hearing, he requested that the commission bring in 10News journalist Marti Emerald, now a City Council member, to discuss remarks she made about Christians on TV.
Kreep became a symbol of intolerance, according to the Los Angeles Times, when San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding referenced the Kreep controversy in her mayoral campaign materials, saying, "We cannot allow... discrimination in hiring, hate crimes in our neighborhoods, bigots appointed to city commissions... or other injustices."
But, Kreep was no racist and actively brought the commission's attention to Tom Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance. Kreep says he had to kick Metzger's followers out of one of his conservative groups.
"I found Mr. Metzger's views to be abhorrent," Kreep tells CityBeat via email. "Although he has a constitutional right to his views, and to espouse them, anyone who promotes a political ideology based on racism and/or anti-Semitism is, to my mind, evil."
Kreep paints himself as a victim, saying he received death threats and that the city assigned six police officers to protect him at HRC meetings. He also claims that, during the meetings, he was "bombarded with used condoms and pus and blood soaked cotton balls" flung by his opponents.
Witnesses find his accusations outrageous.
"If this was true, it would've been on every TV station," says Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a gay activist who spoke against Kreep during public comment in 1992 and later served as HRC chairperson from 2006 to 2011. "That's impossible. If that incident happened, I would know and I would've condemned it... That didn't happen. He's obviously lying."
"Nobody threw any junk like that at him," says Duane Shinnick, a former deputy district attorney whoíd been appointed to the commission by Mayor O'Connor.
"He's full of shit," Rossi says. "Excuse my French; I'm almost 83. Nobody ever threw condoms or bloody cotton balls at him. Not even one. He may have felt we wanted to choke him a time or two, but we wouldn't have done something that drastic."
"Horseshit," Klumpp says. "What nonsense. That is insanity... But I have no doubt he has convinced himself that it happened."
Even though two decades have passed, members have vivid memories of Kreep's absolute certainty, perhaps even arrogance, that his principles and worldviews were correct.
"It's shocking to think he's going to be in a position to judge anyone about anything," Klumpp says.
Although Kreep was an economics major at UCSD (or "Tinker Toy Tech," as he once called it) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he enrolled in Black Studies courses as way to study the enemy—leftist, antiwar activists—he explained in a 2001 interview.
"I was very active in politics in college; those were the days of radicalism—Kent State, Vietnam, the Cambodian incursion," Kreep told Lifeline, the newsletter of the anti-abortion Life Legal Defense Foundation. "We had student strikes led by the left for three years in a row, and the fourth year we managed to take it over and stop it, because we learned from the left their tactics and turned their tactics against them."
His preoccupation with politics hurt his grades, he said, but it also connected him with Sills and a crew of other young conservatives.
"We learned from the left that every time there is a new issue, you set up a new front group with a new name; most people were not smart enough to realize that it was all the same people," Kreep said in the Lifeline interview. "We called ourselves by a variety of names at different times."
Kreep played the public for dumb all the way through the 2012 election cycle. He's founded innumerable groups over the years; in addition to serving as executive director of the USJF, Kreep served as chairman of three political-action committees: Beat Obama PAC (formerly known as Draft Herman Cain), Justice PAC and the Republican Majority Campaign (RMCPAC). He also serves as vice chairman of the Western Conservative Political Action Conference and acts as a consultant for a slate-mail organization.
These groups are controlled by a closed circle of conservative activists and campaign profiteers, including well-known names in Southern California political circles: Randy Goodwin, Jim Lacy, Barrett Garcia and Sills, who died in June. Two more—Charles and Nancy Benninghoff—are ex-convicts involved in financial and tax-fraud schemes in the late 1990s.
Over the years, these players have developed a sophisticated money-moving system, in which anonymous donations are raised in bulk, then redistributed through a complex network of political groups and nonprofits. In the process, hundreds of thousands of dollars end up in their pockets through payments for campaign services.
Kreep's decision to run for judge complicated his role in the political operation. The California Code of Judicial Ethics prohibits judicial candidates from acting as leaders or holding "any position" with a political organization that campaigns for candidates in non-judicial elections.
In an email, Kreep says that he stepped down from all the political organizations when he filed his intention to run for office on Feb. 13, 2012. Behind the scenes, his resignation amounted to little more than a changing of titles as Kreep continued to advise the organizations as paid counsel and as a consultant.
Disclosures filed with the Federal Elections Commission show that, between February and October, RMCPAC paid Kreep $37,659 for legal services and $2,926 for travel and meeting expenses. The committee also paid $6,650, or $950 per month, to rent space in Kreep's office in Ramona, even though the committee is formally based in Santa Ana. Meanwhile, Beat Obama PAC paid Kreep $1,000 for legal services, and a state-level organization, the California Public Safety Voter Guide, paid Kreep $12,500 for consulting work during the summer.
Shifting funds from committee to committee has allowed Kreep's confederates to circumvent reporting deadlines and disclosure thresholds, obscuring the identity of Kreep's judicial-campaign donors.
In 2012, RMCPAC raised $2.8 million—98 percent of its treasury—in anonymous, "unitemized" contributions. That means at least 14,040 donors chipped in small contributions that did not reach the $200 threshold for disclosing their names. Beat Obama / Draft Herman Cain similarly raised $26,458 in anonymous donations.
California laws require names to be disclosed for donations over $100. Although these PACs fundraise for federal candidates, thousands of dollars were donated to Kreep's campaign.
In April—while Kreep was on the payroll—RMCPAC donated $999 to Gary Kreep for Judge. On the same day, RMCPAC transferred $999 to Justice PAC, which, also on the same day, donated $999 to Kreep's campaign. The amount is significant because it's $1 short of the California Political Reform Act's reporting threshold for late contributions. In August, two months after the election, Beat Obama donated another $999 to Kreep's campaign.
Kreep took the money and funneled it back to his colleagues through five Lacy-operated slate-mail organizations—groups that collect money to send out mass-mailers endorsing a list of candidates. Following the tactic Kreep learned in college, these groups operate under a variety of names: Woman's Voice, National Tax Limitation Newsletter, Save Proposition 13, the Small Business Action Committee Newsletter and the California Public Safety Voter Guide. That last one paid Kreep $12,500 for his consulting services.
Another committee controlled by Lacy, Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods, made robocalls using misleading information about plea deals to attack Kreep's opponent, Garland Peed. Kreep could not have directly arranged the robocalls because the Code of Judicial Ethics prohibits candidates from misrepresenting an opponent's record. While common, robocalls that are not introduced by a real person are also illegal in California.
While Kreep is barred from partisan campaign work, the Code of Judicial Ethics hasn't kept him completely out of the game. He's used the USJF, a tax-exempt nonprofit, to oppose Obama's reelection through litigation over his birth certificate. Technically, the lawsuits aren't campaigning, but Kreep's intent is clear enough.
"Remember, all that we need to do is win one eligibility battle, in one state, and Barack Obama's 'reelection' campaign will start to unravel," Kreep wrote in an August fundraising email for USJF. "Any one of these new legal challenges could end Barack Hussein Obama's occupation of the White House."
Reflecting on the early 1990s, former Human Relations Commissioner Shinnick remembers that one particular document ignited the whole Kreep controversy. Activists had obtained a fundraising letter that Kreep sent out in the early 1980s that seemed antithetical to the commission's goals.
"He was basically raising money from people for these fringe ideas and earning a living that way," says Shinnick, who now represents homeowner associations as a private attorney. "That, at the time, struck me as not an honorable way to earn your living, to stir up trouble among people and use it to collect money."
The letter itself is lost to the void of history, but the Los Angeles Times and the U-T reported that it decried "a homosexual assault on traditional American morality," particularly the appointment of gay judges.
"What troubled me in particular was there was not even a hint of regret that he had been involved in that kind of divisive fundraising, not a hint of apology, no sense of 'I've thought about this, and my positions were immature,' or anything," Shinnick says. "No, he was just in total denial that divisive actions for fundraising purposes was wrong."
Kreep still doesn't see anything wrong with the practice. Recent USJF email solicitations have contained titles like, "Militant Homosexual Lobby Targeting Mississippi" and "Stop Internet takeover by UN fascists."
"[M]embers of the Muslim Brotherhood, who love Barack Hussein Obama's soft on terrorism policies, Saudi oil sheiks who are getting even richer because of the Administration's domestic oil drilling moratorium, and America-hating despots around the world are able to dump money into the Obama campaign," Kreep wrote in an Oct. 16 fundraising email for USJF. "Barack Obama is stealing this election by accepting millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions, and we have to stop it."
According to documents on file with the IRS, the bulk of USJF's money goes back into direct-mail and email marketing, a total of $4.5 million in 2009 and 2010. More than half of that went to Response Unlimited, a Virginia-based direct-mail firm that specializes in compiling right-wing mailing lists. The lists have titles such as "Pro-life without exception donors," "Homosexuality is sin donors," "Drill Baby Drill donors" "Christian Zionist donors" and "Obama's not eligible donors." Kreep's organizations routinely rent and share lists.
Some of Kreep's solicitations are more problematic.
In February, Kreep attached his name to RMCPAC emails requesting funds to support Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, in his reelection bid. The emails, which bore Kreep's digital signature, plagiarized eight paragraphs from an article about West written by Politico writer Alex Isenstadt. Remarks critical of West were deleted and a new ending was tacked on.
Kreep denies responsibility.
"Another person wrote the solicitation for me," Kreep says. "I was unaware of any problems with the letters."
CityBeat also found another fundraising letter online attributed to Kreep as the USJF's "executive director emeritus." The solicitation asked supporters to help the 501(c)(3) organization in its transition as Kreep leaves to become a judge, but a closer reading of the text indicates all donations would go toward retiring Kreep's campaign debt. The mail-in contribution slip attached to the mailer instructs donors to write checks to Kreep personally as opposed to his campaign committee.
Kreep says he was unaware of the solicitation's existence. He acknowledges it would be inappropriate if it had, in fact, been sent to supporters.
"This was, apparently, a draft for me to use, set up by a supporter, that was never approved or used by me," Kreep says. "It is on a website that I have no control over and no legal relationship to. Upon my inquiring, I was told that no money was donated through it. I have asked that it be taken down forthwith."
The site, Grassroots.cc, is owned and managed by Grassroots Campaign Creations, one of the top vendors providing campaign services to RMCPAC and Beat Obama. Kreep has used the company to fundraise for USJF and returned the favor by using USJFís name to fundraise for Pray for US, a nonprofit founded by Grassroots' owner, Charles Benninghoff III.
As the Washington Times reported in an in-depth investigation into Draft Herman Cain and RMCPAC in November 2011, disbarred attorney Benninghoff has a long, troubled history with the law.
In 1997, a three-judge, appellate-court panel hammered Benninghoff for "beyond the pale" conduct in a case involving a legal client who invested $607,000 with him on the side. The court characterized Benninghoff's dealings as "suspect" and "unscrupulous." Two years later, Charles and Nancy Benninghoff pleaded guilty to defrauding federal banks and lying to the IRS to obtain a $600,000 loan. Charles spent a year in prison, while Nancy received five years' probation. In the mid-2000s, Benninghoff was caught practicing law without a license in administrative hearings and prisoner-transfer matters.
Benninghoff did not respond to interview requests.
"Individuals that make mistakes can turn their lives around and be productive citizens," Kreep writes, regarding Benninghoff. "Over the years, I have helped several people that have done so."
In recent years, Benninghoff has reinvented himself as a conservative activist and an online marketing guru. Among other services, he provides credit-card processing to Kreep's PACs and organizations. Benninghoff's latest endeavor is the "FaxGram."
Many advocacy organizations encourage supporters to send letters and emails to their Congress members. Through Benninghoff's service, USJF asks its supporters to send mass faxes to Congress—for a fee. In one email that alleged that Obama was suppressing the military vote, Kreep urged people to spend $29.99 to email all 242 Republican members of the House of Representatives or $39.99 to fax all 435 members. Discounts were offered for seniors.
What the solicitation didn't say is that Congress no longer uses traditional fax machines. Instead, faxes arrive digitally through a system not unlike email. At CityBeat's request, staff for Rep. Brian Bilbray dug up four faxes received through Grassroots; all were from citizens outside his district. Due to the large amount of form letters sent, members typically only read letters from actual constituents.
“Judges are entitled to entertain their personal views on political questions," the California Code of Judicial Ethics states. "They are not required to surrender their rights or opinions as citizens. They shall, however, avoid political activity that may create the appearance of political bias or impropriety. Judicial independence and impartiality should dictate the conduct of judges and candidates for judicial office."
On Jan. 7, 2013, Gary George Kreep will be sworn in as a judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County. Presiding Judge Robert Trentacosta will assign Kreep to a specific department, such as the civil or small-claims division, for one year, or for three years if he decides to send Kreep to juvenile or family court. The latter is Kreep's preference. He will earn a $178,789 salary, with an annual car allowance of $6,864.
Kreep's election in June served as a wake-up call for the legal community, with the county bar association, top prosecutors and retired judges coming out en masse to oppose another conservative candidate in the November election. Before Kreep was elected, Jim Miller Jr. was the front runner, but on Election Day he was crushed by his opponent, Deputy District Attorney Robert Amador, in an 18-percent landslide.
"I'm quite confident that at least 95 percent or more of the bar leaders and retired justices that opposed Miller in favor of Amador would've supported Peed and not Kreep," says Len Simon, who helped coordinate the effort. "It just wasn't a public issue at the time."
The question now is what to do about Judge Kreep. Lawyers whose cases come before Kreep can file a peremptory challenge, called "papering," to have their cases transferred to another judge. Kreep can be voted out in six years. A recall would require opponents to collect a prohibitively high, 81,729 signatures, the equivalent of 20 percent of the voters in the countywide election. The Legislature may remove a judge through impeachment for misconduct in office. The California Commission on Judicial Performance also has the power to discipline officers of the court, including suspension and removal.
There's also a question for Kreep. Why would he give up the $221,000 in wages and benefits he receives from USJF and the thousands in fees he receives from PACs? Why give up his passionate legal crusades and political assaults?
"The answer is simple, for reasons which you could ascertain with some real research," he writes to CityBeat. "I have a heart to help people, and all God's creatures."
Email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass. Writer's note: I'd like to express massive respect (and link) to all the other media who've been covering Kreep and his associates recently and over the years, especially TPM Muckraker, Politico, Maddow Blog, FactCheck.org, OC Weekly and KPBS.