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 and others.
The Sun-Star obtained seven e-mails Frago sent from October 2008 to February 2009.
One compared Obama to O.J. Simpson; another made reference to an offer from Playboy for Sarah Palin to pose nude and said Michelle Obama got a similar offer from National Geographic.
Frago admitted sending the e-mails and has no regrets.
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"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."
Those who sent or received the e-mails include a county supervisor, a former police chief, a city manager and a former City Council member.
All the jokes Frago sent originated with 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 did not recall receiving the e-mails, and several of the senders did not remember sending them or said they were not meant to be harmful.
Black community leaders called the e-mails outrageous.
'I just passed them on'
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.
"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. These e-mails were 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, Frago said.
City and county officials said they didn't remember receiving the e-mails, or if they did, they deleted them.
Nelson, who calls Frago a "very good friend," said he does not recall receiving any of Frago's e-mails. "I can't control what comes in my inbox."
Former City Councilman Andy Krotik, who received some of Frago's e-mails, said he gets hundreds of e-mails a day and deletes most of them.
Krotik said he has "been receiving political e-mails from Frago for years," but hasn't seen any that were racist.
'Don't like it? Delete it'
Atwater City Manager Greg Wellman, who received numerous e-mails from Frago, said he recalled 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.
Rieger, who sent two e-mails to Frago, one about Obama taxing aspirin because "it's white and it works" and the other 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 he is not a racist.
The Sun-Star obtained the e-mails after the city refused to give them to the newspaper.
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 through the city e-mail system.
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" to be deemed public.
The letter went on to say that "e-mails received by city staff from council member Frago and (former Councilman Nelson) Crabb which are not public records (i.e.. not relating to the conduct of the public's business), have not been produced."
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.
'Forfeited right to lead'
Napoleon Washington, president of the Merced branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said 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.' "