Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Shooting Star, part 9: straight-shooting conservative Tom Rogers on Caspers, Harber, and what they portended

Tom Rogers (1924-2006), OC GOP chair, 1969-1972
             (For parts 1-8, go here.)
             TALK TO TOM ROGERS. The other night, I spoke with an old acquaintance who’s been active in mostly Democratic politics in Orange County going back at least thirty years. I mentioned to him that I was researching the sinking of the “Shooting Star.” He immediately knew what I was referring to.
            “You need to talk to Tom Rogers,” he said. “He’s the guy who knows.”
            “Yeah? Is he still alive?” I asked.
            “Don’t know.”
            When I got home, I did a little research. Tom Rogers was an interesting guy. He grew up in LA County, served with distinction during WW II, went to college on the GI Bill, got married, and, by the early 60s, owned a ranch in south Orange County.
Tom Riley, developers' friend
            That’s when he got into politics. Rogers was decidedly right-wing—he was an early supporter of the notorious John Schmitz. But he was also the kind of now-rare conservative who was into “conserving” things, especially the rural life of OC that still existed in the 60s and that now exists only in the canyons of the Santa Ana Mountains (where the Reb and I live). 
            He was a leader: he served as the Chair of the local GOP from 1969 to1972 and then served as a state GOP big shot during Reagan’s gubernatorial years (see).
            But things changed. Especially after Ron Caspers was replaced with Reagan appointee Thomas Riley—that fellow was the answer to developers’ dreams—Rogers settled into a slow-growth philosophy that directly opposed the “rapid development” direction of the Board of Supervisors and their Big Money patrons. Hell, in his efforts to oppose the developers and their Supervisors, he even embraced bipartisanship.
            The story is told in a 1996 article by Nathan Callahan: Tobacco Road: Tom Rogers & the Philip Morris Tollway.
            I’ve gotta say: Tom Rogers may have been a conservative Republican, but he was a cool guy. Read the article and see why. It comes as no surprise that the left-wing Callahan declared Rogers to be “my favorite Orange County Republican.”
            According to my friend (who is a close associate of Callahan's), Rogers always thought that the sinking of the Shooting Star was seriously hinky. The whole business soured him on the OC GOP. Or so the friend said.

* * *
Ron Caspers
            CALLING MRS. ROGERS. I looked Rogers up. I managed to find a phone number, called it. His wife, who seems to have a European accent, answered the phone.
            I said: “Hello, is Mr. Tom Rogers there?”
            “My husband died six years ago. In fact the date of his death is a month away: April 16. Why are you calling?”
            “I’m writing an article about the sinking of the Shooting Star in 1974.”
            “Oh, Ron Caspers?”
            She told me that she wasn’t the one to talk to about that, that her husband had written about Caspers and the Shooting Star in his book.
            “Agents’ Orange?” I asked. That was the only book that Rogers seems to have written. It was published in 2000.
            She then recited the whole title: “Agents’ Orange: the unabridged political history of Orange County 1960-2000.”
            “We stopped printing it,” she said. “But we made the book available to local libraries.”
            I told her that I had already located a copy at the Santa Ana Public Library and that I would probably be reading it tomorrow.
            “Sorry to bother you,” I said.
            “It’s no bother. I’m glad that people are still interested in those things.”
            I’m not entirely sure what she meant by “those things,” but I'll take whatever encouragement I can get.

Irvine Heritage Library: "lost"
            LIBRARY SNIPE HUNT. Yesterday, I finished my last class and got back to my office. I Googled “Agents’ Orange.” I found that the book was supposed to be available just down the street, at the Irvine Heritage Park Library. So I zipped over there, found the book’s call numbers, and headed for the stacks.
            Couldn’t find it.
            I asked a librarian for help, and that sent her into a fury of searching and conferring and whatnot. After about twenty minutes, she acknowledged that the book was “lost.” That’s an official category, evidently. 
            While at the Irvine Heritage, I found that the book was supposed to be available also at the San Juan Capistrano Library, and so I headed down the 5. Fifteen minutes later, I entered the smallish building, just behind the Mission, and headed for the reference section. 
            Couldn’t find the book.
San Juan Capistrano Library: "lost"
            Talked to a librarian. She informed me that the book was in the “California Collection,” which, as it happened, was immediately behind me. Aha! She walked over and looked for it. 
            Couldn't find the book. 
            That sent her into search and confer mode, and, at the end of that process she declared that the book was “lost.”
            Gosh, what are the chances?
            I headed home and called the Santa Ana Public Library, which was also supposed to have a copy, but their copy was in the “Local History” room, which is only open from Tuesdays through Thursdays. (It was Monday.) Dang! So I planned to go there the next day.
            Feeling lucky, I did a quick search at Irvine Valley College Library, and, guess what? They supposedly had a copy, too, and it was “available”! Skeptical, I called up the IVC Library and spoke with some guy who went in search of the book. After about fifteen minutes, he declared, “Got it!”

IVC Library: "Got it!"
            TOM ROGERS' EXCELLENT ADVENTURE. So, today, I picked up the book. Just now, I got a chance to give it a quick once over. It appears to be excellent. It is a marvelous book that seems to have been almost entirely ignored for the last dozen years. Near as I could tell, it had never been checked out at any of those libraries.
            I’ll have more soon, but, for now, I'll start off with some quotations that provide a sense of Rogers' theses.
            This is from Rogers’ “Introduction.” According to Rogers’ "unabridged" OC History, starting in the 1970s,
the driving forces behind those who would gain political control of Orange County were motivated by the pursuit of corporate profits, and party affiliation was simply a matter of convenience rather than conviction.
. . .
        The most devastating result of dollar politics was that Republicans and Democrats abandoned their core party principles. The temptation was just too strong to win elections with the unlimited funds available to those who passed the litmus test. The special interests were soon able to control the county and some cities when computer technology replaced motivated volunteers as a decisive force in winning elections.
El Toro Road (in Caspers' district), 1970
             THE "CAVE MEN." Eventually, according to Rogers,
a relatively small group of Republican incumbents began to exert influence at the state level, by pre selecting candidates for State Assembly and Senate. The criteria for their selection process was a willingness … to accept and embrace the incumbents’ view of what constitutes a “proper” conservative. Once they passed this Biblical/Philosophical vetting, those Republicans who made the cut would have the assurance of sizeable donations plus professional management of their campaigns. This all-knowing, all-powerful group became known as “The Cave Men” [elsewhere, Rogers notes that the term is non-pejorative], who by virtue of being incumbents had the capability of extracting money from lobbyists in Sacramento, a literal bonanza for all ambitious politicians…. Whether it was the financial support of the special interests or of the GOP incumbents, the net result was that in many cases individuals were elected to an office for which they were totally unqualified.
Tom and wife at Supervisor Riley's annual BBQ, c. mid-80s
             THE COALITION. In one section of his book, Rogers provides a chronological sketch of the events covered in his book. Things don’t really start popping until 1970:
1970   Mysterious newcomer runs a behind-the-scenes campaign to gain election to the Board of Supervisors. Ron Caspers is elected in the 5th District, changing the direction of politics in Orange County. Ralph Clark is also elected to the board making a third vote for the emerging special interests. This new group of wealthy individuals is called The Coalition, and they begin to exert power in Orange County. [Rogers later states that the “Coalition” comes to an end in 1978 with the indictment of Louis Cella, Richard O'Neill's partner in achieving political influence.]
Dr. Louis Cella
            Despite their brief tenure, Caspers and Co. loom large in Rogers’ remarkable account of OC political corruption: “…[M]any blame [Caspers] for the descent of Orange County into the world of political intrigue, campaign finance abuses, and influence peddling” (p. 154).

            CASPERS AND HARBER: SHAKEDOWN. Elsewhere, Rogers discusses “Shooting Star” owner, Fred Harber (you’ll recall that Harber was among the ten victims of the Shooting Star disaster that also took Caspers' life), who, according to Rogers, engaged in an activity “now called lobbying”:
     Harber had been considered a prime mover in county politics….   Prior to his disappearance, he was alleged to have been involved in a shakedown of a developer in behalf of Supervisor Caspers. The builder Richard V. Jordan, in a sworn statement, declared that Harber had contacted him after his project in Casper’s 5th District had been turned down, and had told him what it would take to solve the problem. “$10,000 and $2,000 per month” Harber is alleged to have demanded form Jordan…. 
     Jordan asserted in his deposition that the meeting with Harber was prior to meeting with Caspers in a rubber raft off Cabo San Lucas. Jordan was represented by attorney R.S. “Sam” Barnes and his client contacted District Attorney [and Cella foe] Cecil Hicks and arranged for a payoff with marked bills. [A sting!] Before the plan was put into motion, Caspers won reelection and, with Harber, boarded the Shooting Star and headed once again for the Cape…. [From there, the ship headed north and disappeared.]   In the end the county paid off $700,000 to Jordan’s company…, as a result of losses caused by the extortion scheme.
            In his 1984 article ("The Sinking of a Political Machine"), journalist Larry Peterson wondered if Harber and Caspers attempted this "shakedown" with others—others who, unlike Jordan, were disposed to respond with violence rather than litigation.
            Rogers’ account of the dirty tricks campaign waged in 1969 against Republican Supervisor Alton Allen is fascinating. As it turns out, Ron Caspers was behind that campaign. Caspers won the Supervisorial seat away from Allen in 1970, with Tom Fuentes’ help.
            One more thing: in his book's first reference to the "Shooting Star" disaster, Rogers writes: "Fred Harber's controversial career was cut short by what appeared to be a maritime accident" (151).
            "Appeared to be"?
—More to come—
SEE Part 10
OC Supervisor Alton Allen, 1969.
Essentially taken out by dirty trickster Ron Caspers.
Tom Fuentes was Caspers' right hand man

5 comments:

  1. great photos! good story too...

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  2. why didn't you check IVC's library first?

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  3. I Googled it originally and the IVC copy never came up. The others did.

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  4. Crazy!!! So much info out there that I never knew existed & you're finding it Roy!! THANK YOU!!!!

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  5. Wow, the more you find out the more questions there are. An accident (doubtful), revenge for bribery or just dirty politics,

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