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Gold's Gym Faces Backlash After CEO Gives to GOP Group

Updated at 5:25 p.m. ET

A set of Gold's Gym franchises in the San Francisco Bay Area are abandoning their brand after learning that their parent company's owner made a large, private donation to American Crossroads, the conservative political group that backs candidates opposed to expanding gay rights.

Billionaire Robert Rowling, CEO of TRT Holdings, which owns Gold's, has given more than $2 million this election cycle to American Crossroads, the third party organization with ties to former Bush strategist Karl Rove.

Reports of Rowling's significant donations to American Crossroads angered some franchise owners, who said the donations betrayed Gold's strong ties to the gay community.

"Gold's Gym San Francisco has long been a pillar of the gay community. We will continue to be," Don Dickerson, the director of operations for Gold's Gym Bay Area, wrote in a Facebook note. "It is very unfortunate that the CEO of TRT Holdings has chosen this course of action. We do not support it in any way."

Dickerson wrote that the Bay Area Gold's Gyms will allow their contractual obligations with Gold's Gym International to expire in 2012, if they are not able to end them sooner. On top of that, the franchises plan to match every dollar paid in Gold's Gym in franchise fees with a donation of equal or greater size to LGBT charities.

Rowling's donations also spurred an online petition, which now has more than 4,000 signatures, calling on Gold's to stop its corporate executives from "taking money from customers and spending it in order to elect anti-gay politicians."

The petition points to American Crossroads' expenditures on Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who opposes allowing gays to adopt children, as well as its expenditures on Republican Rep. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Senate candidate who voted to amend the Constitution to prohibit gay marriage.

Gold's Gym International released a statement, Salon reports, distancing the brand from Rowling's donations.

"We are proud to have a large and dedicated base of LGBT members in our gyms... and value our strong ties with the LGBT community," Gold's spokesperson Dave Reiseman said in the statement. "Gold's Gym did not make a donation to American Crossroads (or any other political organization) and in no way supports anti-gay causes. Quite the contrary, the Gold's Gym family has been strong supporters of the LGBT community over the years."

Reiseman continued, "Gold's Gym is a non-political organization and our member's dues are not used to fund political candidates. Bob Rowling, the CEO of our ownership group, TRT Holdings, made a private donation completely independent from (and not on behalf of) Gold's Gym."

While Rowling did give more than $2 million as a private donation completely independent from his company, TRT Holdings has given an additional $2.5 million from the company treasury this election cycle, according to public filings.

The outcry over Gold's affiliation with American Crossroads is similar to the backlash Target Corp. suffered from earlier this year, after the company made a financial donation to a political group that supported a Republican candidate opposed to same-sex marriage. Target subsequently apologized for offending its customers and employees with the donation.

Update: Reiseman points out that the owners of the four Bay Area franchises in question, Sebastyen and Zsolt Jackovics, sold two of the four franchises earlier this year because of matters unrelated to Rowling's donations.

"While there is no doubt that Gold's Gym San Francisco has been a pillar of the LGBT community, to say that they left the Gold's Gym brand because of the American Crossroads donation would be disingenuous," Reiseman said.

Sebastyen Jackovics confirmed to the Hotsheet that its franchises in San Mateo and Redwood City were sold earlier this year. However, their two San Francisco franchises are still contractually tied to Gold's Gym International, and Jackovics said that shareholders of the San Francisco locations only made the final decision to terminate their relationship with the brand after learning about Rowling's donations.

"When this transpired, the company shareholders basically got together and said it's definite we're not going to renew," he said. "When this situation was thrown in our lap, it was unacceptable to our staff, our shareholders and our members."

Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.
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