In the past several months 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 "n----r 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.