Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fuentes, Michelena & Overby: plump mosquitoes from the same swamp


     “Frank G. Michelena is the guy you go to see when you want something from Orange County government.”
LA Times, 1990

     "I challenge Mr. Bein and his lobbyist Tom Fuentes to give even one legitimate reason why their firm gives gifts to individuals who have decision-making power over contracts…. ...Now we all know what it takes to be a successful engineering firm in Orange County."
Shirley Grindle, 1993
     In my last post, I laid out former SOCCCD PR gal Pam Zanelli's fortuitous appearances, like magical momentary moths, in the tangled fabric of Orange County politics and corruption. As you know, our own Tom Fuentes, late SOCCCD trustee, was all over that fabric; and, in particular, he had connections to a notorious (c. 1970s) campaign finance entity—the duo "Dick and Doc"or at least to that entity's delighted and deficient beneficiaries. Now, as it happens, it's a seriously small world, 'cause Pam Zanelli was an employee of the notorious Dr. Louis Cella, the "Doc" half of "Dick and Doc." What a coincidence!
     Anyway, our gal Pam worked for Dr. Cella at exactly the time when his curious operation (hospital, political giving, printing, Medicare and Medi-Cal fraud, etc.) was in full operation.
     She assures us, of course, that she had no idea what her boss was really doing, insofar as any of it was something he shouldn't o' been doing. Natch.

From the Times' "Lobbyists: dealers in trust and compromise," 2/20/72, where Michelena is
identified as one of six "top" professional lobbyists in OC. At the time, the Rancho Mission
Viejo was owned by the O'Neill family (headed by Richard O'Neill of "Dick & Doc").
     Among Zanelli's other moth-like flittings in OC's lurid fabric was a cheese-and-wine party she helped organize for Governor Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown (1981). Just who would be invited to that bash was a critical and delicate matter, it seems, 'cause it was OC where there are no Moonbeams. Now, some of the fat cats in attendance were invited by notorious lobbyist Frank Michelena. Michelena, as it turns out, worked with Tom Fuentes on the seriously hinky Team Caspers, back in 1970 and thereafter.
     (Frank Michelena was an aide to OC Supe Bill Phillips [1957-1973] and later to Supe Ralph Clark, a D&D beneficiary who ultimately resigned under a cloud [prostitutes for favors?!] and became a lobbyist.)

From "The case against Dr. Cella," May 9, 1976 (Times)
     Another coincidence! It's, like, everybody's connected to everybody.
     Now when people talk about famous (or infamous) OC lobbyists, Michelena isn't the only name to pop up. Another one, a big one, is Lyle Overby, a fella who's made lots of money helping entities (including himself) secure lucrative government contracts. He's a go-between guy, a kind of pricey lubricant in a world of big wallets straining against nasty moral and legal friction to be emptied or filled like they wanna be. Pfffffwoooooo!
     (In the early 70s, Overby was an executive aide to Supervisor Ralph Diedrich, a fellow who was later indicted [1977] on 16 felony and misdemeanor violations concerning campaign finance. Soon after, the county grand jury charged him with two counts of bribery and one count on conspiracy. In the 80s, he served 20 months in Chino.)
     Overby, you'll recall, shares with Tom Fuentes membership in a very special group: guys who were invited on that fateful 1974 trip on the doomed yacht "Shooting Star" but who bailed, thereby saving their goddam lives. Ten men died on that trip, including Supervisor Caspers and Dick and Doc's political guru, Fred Harber. That spelled disaster for the "Dick and Doc show," 'cause Harber was like the Spiderman of creepy OC politics/business/whatever webulosity, and none of the other bugs had web-shooters.
     In Fuentes' case, though he made sure to stow a special cooler of goodies for his boss (Caspers) on the boat, at the last minute, he refused to board 'cause it wasn't safe. (Selfish bastard. What about his pals?) Overby actually traveled on the first leg of the trip—but bailed before the ship headed north, to its appointment with danged destiny.
     Lucky guys. Or something.
     One more thing before I go on: Tom Fuentes was also a lobbyist, you know. Near as I can tell, he made his living getting firms he worked for in contact with government officials who were in the position of granting big contracts. (He also invested in properties and such, just like his pal Fred H.)
     He had to be mighty careful, as you can imagine. He slipped up sometimes. You can't let the strings show.
     Now, as it happens, you can find points in time and space when all of these dudes spectacularly and accidentally come together to become one slime-event in the universe or something. One good example is June, 1985, in Santa Ana, CA:

$1-Million Contract for Vote-Count Unit Awarded, LA Times, June 26, 1985
     Ignoring staff recommendations, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to award a $1-million contract to a San Francisco firm for a new ballot-counting system.
     After months of intense lobbying by the major manufacturers, Sequoia Pacific Systems of San Francisco was chosen to supply the county with new machinery in time for November's community college, school and special-service district elections.
     Sequoia's price for the new system, which uses computer cards with candidates' names printed on them and a hole-punching machine to mark ballots, is about $500,000 more than the pen-marking system recommended by a board-appointed advisory committee.
. . .
     The decision is controversial because the new system will replace existing vote-tally equipment installed five years ago, also over the strong objections of county staff....
. . .
     As late as Monday afternoon, Sequoia Pacific's lobbyist, Frank Michelena, was visiting board members in their offices. Moreover, county Republican Party Chairman Tom Fuentes wrote letters to supervisors and called Board Chairman Thomas F. Riley to urge selection of Sequoia Pacific. [Gosh, I wonder why the reporter neglected to mention that Frank and Tom were pals from way back?]
. . .
     "We don't feel the county did the right thing," said DFM President Tom Diebolt after Tuesday's decision.
     However, Diebolt said he did not think any improprieties had occurred during the bidding process.
. . .
     Diebolt said he did not employ the services of a lobbyist because "Our firm has never had to deal directly with county board members before . . . In every county where our services have been selected, we dealt only with county staff, who made the selection and then followed up with recommendations to the board. Often, we were simply an item on a consent (no discussion) calendar (agenda)."
     Fuentes said he recommended Sequoia Pacific to Riley and other board members after he met with Michelena and a Sequoia official to discuss the importance of audit trails in close recounts, such as occurred in last year's 256-vote victory by Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove) over Republican challenger Richard Longshore. The term "audit trails" refers to the process of being able to trace and analyze the ballots cast so that none are lost or misplaced. Fuentes said he received no compensation for recommending Sequoia.
. . .
     The existing system was sold to the county by Valtec Co. of Tulsa, Okla.
     There was intense lobbying—including controversial campaign contributions from vendors to county supervisors—during the selection process last time. In the end, the board ignored the recommendations of its own staff and picked a system that had never been tried.
     Valtec hired Lyle Overby, an aide to former supervisor Ralph Diedrich, during the last bidding war. Overby was not involved in the current competition, county officials said….
     In May, the Times had reported:
     The existing system was purchased—over the objections of a county advisory group—from the Valtec Co. of Tulsa, Okla., after an intensive lobbying campaign in which Valtec hired lobbyist Lyle Overby, who earlier had served on the staffs of former Supervisors Ralph Diedrich and Robert Battin.
     Battin and Diedrich, of course, were beneficiaries of Dick and Doc's largesse.

* * *
     “When we wrote TIN CUP (the county law limiting campaign donations), one of the main reasons was to stop what [Frank Michelena] was doing,'' said campaign watchdog Shirley Grindle, who agreed he was one of the most influential people in the county in the 1970s. “Once there was TIN CUP, he played by the rules. In fact, we became friends. He had a very generous heart. He was basically a kind person."
Shirley Grindle, OC Reg, 8/2/2005
     One lobbyist, Frank Michelena, has established himself as the Santa
Claus of county consultants. He has given more than $ 7,800 in
sporting-event tickets, meals and other gifts to supervisors and their
aides in the past five years, according to gift reports filed by the
officials.
     In second place is lobbyist Lyle Overby, who has given $ 2,834 in gifts
to supervisors and aides during the same period, the reports show.

OC Register, 11/20/88 

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