My dinner with Arnold

A funny thing happened on the way to San Pablo: For a guy who can’t stop accusing everyone else in Sacramento of either being a special interest or selling out to one, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is finding out that it’s tougher than it sounds to avoid helping someone who gave him money.

Take the capital city’s most beloved family, for instance. The Maloof clan, which owns a Las Vegas casino and a local basketball team, stands to get a piece of the action from the new gaming deals Schwarzenegger announced last week. Specifically: George Maloof, who runs the family’s Palms casino, belongs to a business group “that is expected to run one of the world’s largest casinos” in the East Bay town of San Pablo, the Las Vegas Sun reported last week.

Coincidentally, Maloof Sports and Entertainment spent more than $64,000 to put on a February fund-raiser for the governor, according to state campaign-finance reports.

Joe Maloof later bragged to an Albuquerque newspaper that the event brought in more than $1 million, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, thanks to donors who ponied up $100,000 a plate for dinner with the Arnold at Gavin Maloof’s pad or $25,000 to take in a Spurs-Kings game later that night.

The funny thing about that, the guv’s people tell reporters who bother to point out how the situation looks, is that there’s nothing to get anyone’s lederhosen in a knot about because it was just a big coincidence.

The Maloofs’ flack didn’t return calls, but Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto said there was nothing to know about at the time of the February fund-raiser because “the Maloofs were not engaged in discussions with the tribe” back then. Ergo, there was no possibility that the Maloofs influenced the deal. “There was no relationship to know about,” he said.

Cougars and coyotes and cats, oh my! Cyclists and runners using the American River Parkway trail aren’t too wild about a visitor who showed up unexpectedly this summer. Two people told park rangers they spotted a cougar about 11 miles from downtown near Watt Avenue on July 15. Two weeks later, a third person reported a cougar at C.M. Goethe Park.

American River Parkway head ranger Dave Lydick told Bites they probably saw a coyote or house cat, because cougars don’t live in the parkway. The guys who reported it said this ain’t no coyote.

Carmichael telecommunications manager and cyclist Chad Greek, 27, said a “German shepherd”-sized cougar sprinted across the trail 50 to 70 feet away from him between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Close by, said private investigator and runner John Kennedy, 51, a cougar raced toward him and passed within 30 feet.

“It was running fast. If it had more gears, I really don’t want to know,” he said. “I just keep hoping there are slower runners than me.”

Kennedy has seen a cougar more than once in the C.M. Goethe Park area in the last two years. He now avoids the trail at dusk.

Others are wary, also—especially after a cougar killed one mountain biker and critically injured another in one day last January in Orange County. Rangers here tacked up warnings to alert people last month. Still, there’s no reason sightings should turn Sacramentans into a frothing, gun-toting mob. Cougars always have roamed this area, and none of the thousands of parkway users ever has been attacked.

“You have a greater chance of being run over by a deer or stepped on by an elephant,” said Lydick. “It probably shouldn’t be on anybody’s list of top things to worry about.”

If there was a cougar, he said, it likely was just visiting the biggest natural corridor left in Sacramento. The area is rotten with deer—a favorite on any cougar’s menu.

You hate me; you really hate me: Winning the hearts and minds of California’s power brokers always has been high on Bites’ to-do list, so imagine the excitement about last week’s nomination for an Around the Capitol ( award. Voters at the site, founded by lobbyist Scott Lay, nominated Bites alongside Jill Stewart, the Bee’s two Dans and other capital hacks in the “Best Reporter: Opinion” category. A voting board of 125 legislators, reporters and lobbyists will choose the winners, to be announced during the last week of the legislative session. But, hey, we’re all winners, right?