By JONAH OWEN LAMB
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article uses language that is offensive but necessary to show a pattern of conduct by an Atwater city councilman.
ATWATER -- In the past several months Atwater City Councilman Gary Frago has sent at least a half-dozen e-mails to city staff and other prominent community members containing racist jokes aimed at President Barack Obama, his wife and black people in general.
In all, the Sun-Star obtained seven e-mails that Frago sent from October 2008 to February 2009 from an anonymous source.
Some compared Obama to O.J. Simpson while others suggested that "nigger rigs" should now be called "presidential solutions."
Perhaps the most overboard e-mail was sent on Jan. 15. It read: "Breaking News Playboy just offered Sarah Palin $1 million to pose nude in the January issue. Michelle Obama got the same offer from National Geographic."
Frago admitted sending the e-mails, but showed no regret. "If they're from me, then I sent them," he said. "I have no disrespect for the president or anybody, they weren't meant in any bad way or harm."
The list of people who either sent or received the e-mails reads like a who's who of Atwater community and political leadership, including a county supervisor, a former police chief, a city manager, a former city council member, a former president of a veterans group, a former grand knight of the Knights of Columbus, among others.
All the jokes that Frago sent originated from others, the e-mails show. Those who could be identified were Bob Rieger, a retired Atwater city works employee; Michael McIntyre, a Merced resident; and Lee Aldridge, a retired Air Force colonel in Alabama.
Most of the recipients said they do not recall receiving the e-mails and several of the senders either do not remember sending them or claim they were not meant to be harmful.
Still, a few of the senders and a recipient said they saw no harm in any of the jokes sent.
Black community leaders called the e-mails outrageous, revealing that American society has not left behind some of its racist past.
While recent racial barriers have been broken -- such as the election of a black president -- and most outright racial and prejudice is not acceptable in public, local civil rights activists and others believe the e-mails illustrate the racism that lingers behind some doors assumed to be closed in Atwater and America.
Frago, 63, who was the city's first paid firefighter and has been on the City Council since 2000, said the e-mails were not meant to harm anyone. He has nothing against black people or the president, he said.
"I don't see where there's a story, I'm not the only one that does it," he said. "I didn't originate them, they came to me and I just passed them on."
Frago said he sends all kinds of joke e-mails about every one from Jews to Portuguese (Frago is of Portuguese descent). These e-mails were just meant for friends, not public officials, he added. Frago said any e-mails were sent via personal accounts.
For instance, the e-mails he sent to Merced County Supervisor Mike Nelson were sent to his Yahoo account, said Frago.
When asked again if he had any regrets about sending the e-mails, he said: "No, because I didn't see any harm in them."
City and county officials said they didn't remember receiving the e-mails, or if they did they deleted them.
Supervisor Nelson, who calls Frago a "very good friend," said he does not recall receiving any of Frago's e-mails. "I don't recall getting those," he said. "I can't control what comes in my inbox."
Former City Councilman Andy Krotik, who also received some of Frago's e-mails, said he gets hundreds of e-mails a day and deletes most of them.
While he said he has "been receiving political e-mails from Frago for years," he hasn't seen any that are racial. "I have not seen any jokes from Gary Frago with racial slurs in them," said Krotik.
Atwater City Manager Greg Wellman, who received numerous e-mails from Frago, said he did recall receiving a couple. "The best method for dealing with objectionable material is the delete button," he said.
Another recipient, Assistant City Manager Stan Feathers, said much the same thing. "I get hundreds of e-mails a day and if I receive an e-mail that I'm not interested in, I delete it," he said. "They didn't come from me and I'm not sure what the original source of those were."
Many e-mail recipients not in government do not recall receiving the e-mails.
Normand Coultier, former president of the National Association for Uniformed Services, Merced chapter, a veterans group, said he did not recall receiving any such e-mails from Frago. "I don't recall what happened yesterday let alone what happened in February," he said. Reminded of the e-mails' content he said, "No, I wouldn't think that was appropriate."
Cecil Samples, of Atwater, who was forwarded several e-mails along with Frago, said he gets hundreds of e-mails and doesn't recall any of those mentioned.
John Riis-Christensen, Awater's police chief from 1995 to 1999, was also forwarded several of the e-mails that Frago then sent on. Riis-Christensen did not return messages left for him by the Sun-Star.
McIntyre, a Merced resident who received and sent some of the e-mails, said he doesn't read half the e-mails he forwards or receives. "I don't remember sending them," he said. "I wouldn't send them out if I was a City Council member. I'd send them to friends," he added. "So Gary's messed up again."
Aldridge, who sent an e-mail to McIntyre who then sent it to Frago, did not return repeated phone calls.
Another recipient of forwarded e-mails along with Frago, Don Cherf, a former grand knight in Merced's Knights of Columbus chapter, said he didn't recall seeing the e-mails either. But he said the e-mail about Michelle Obama posing for National Geographic was not derogatory. "It's just a joke, there's nothing slanderous meant," he said. "I feel you are reading it wrong. It's not meant (to be) derogatory."
Rieger, who sent two e-mails to Frago, one about Obama taxing Aspirin because "it's white and it works" and the otherl about Michelle Obama posing in National Geographic, said he had no regrets. "My question is what's wrong with them?" he said. "They are poking fun at somebody. If it makes somebody laugh I don't see anything wrong with it."
Rieger said the jokes he sent had no racial meaning. "As far as I'm concerned the e-mails need no explanation," he said. "I sent them out, I'm not concerned with it," he said.
Rieger also said he had no idea what Frago's constituents might think of the e-mails. "I'm sure if I was black I'd have a different idea of what was funny," he said. "I got black friends that I would tell these jokes to and they would roll on the floor in laughter."
Rieger said that he is not a racist.
City holds e-mails
The Sun-Star obtained the e-mails after they were denied to the newspaper by the city. The city stated that because the e-mails did not contain matters regarding city business, they were not public documents even if they were received on city e-mails.
In a letter sent to the Sun-Star, dated June 11, the city noted that any documents must "be related to the conduct of the public's business" in order to be deemed public. The letter went on to say, "e-mails received by City Staff from Council Member Frago and Crabb which are not public records (i.e. not relating to the conduct of the public's business), have not been produced."
The city attorney Dennis Myers did not explain in the letter why the newspaper's request was denied. But Wellman said he has been told that any information sent over the city server is a public document.
While racial barriers such as segregation and Jim Crow have been overcome, e-mails like these remind some that America's racial divisions are alive and well, said Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
Jensen, who is also author of "The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege," said that the disappearance of overt racism in polite society only means it has gone underground. Racial jokes for instance, may be meant in jest, but they are not just jokes. "They are a sign of a deeply entrenched white supremacist idealogy in this country," Jensen said.
Racist jokes reinforce this world view cloaked in humor, he said. But they are also expressions of power in and of themselves, he said.
They essentially communicate that the teller can say denigrating things with impunity. If you feel comfortable saying such things in a private setting, he said, that fact signals an implicit understanding among your compatriots that it is OK to say such things.
Doctor Napoleon Washington, president of the Merced branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that he was appalled by these revelations, but not surprised.
"You'd think that they had greater regard for their constituency," he said. But he was unequivocal about political officials who do this kind of thing. "They need to get out of office. They have forfeited their right to say that I am a community leader," he said.
Michelle Allison, who recently stepped down as Merced's NAACP president after eight years, said that elected officials should be held to a higher standard.
The fact that an elected official was comfortable enough to send these e-mails shows a real callousness, she said.
But the responsibly doesn't just end there, she said. "I think it's your responsibility to say you know that it was inappropriate," she said of anyone who saw the e-mails.
"You are just as guilty sometimes if you don't correct someone who is doing something inappropriate."