Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Fuentes file: Puppets and Puppeteers

Buena Park politicos, 1958. That's Fred Harber,
left of center

     Orange County Supervisor (1969-1977) Robert Battin was an early beneficiary of the now-notorious political funding operation known as the “Dick and Doc Show” (Dick O’Neill and Louis Cella). Oddly enough, Fred Harber, who was very senior in the larger D&D operation (what Battin, then scrambling to avoid prosecution, later termed the “Coalition”), and who had already served as a Mayor (of Buena Park) and City Manager (of Cypress), briefly served as Battin’s “executive assistant” in 1969, making $12,300 per year.
     According to an old LA Times article (“Battin a Puppet, Ex-Aides Claim; He Denies It,” June 20, 1972), in June of 1972, there was a special press conference down at the county courthouse:
     Two recently fired aides of 1st District Supervisor Robert Battin showed up to publicly accuse their ex-boss of being only a political puppet to his campaign manager and former aide, Fred Harber, a man they described as “Orange County’s kingmaker.”
     Afterward, says the article, Harber showed up, proclaiming, “I am just a lowly worker in the vineyard … of good government.”
     Then Battin himself showed up, stating that the aides’ assertions were “complete bullshit.” (The Times characterized Battin’s remark as “earthy.”)

* * *
     According to the Times, the aides were Steve Polatnick and John Abbott, both 27. The firings were described as an “aftermath” of a recent primary in which Battin had come in second (among Republicans), forcing a runoff in November. (Battin prevailed.)
     The aides claimed that Battin “sat in his inner office with orders that no constituents be allowed to speak to him … or see him.” Polatnick is quoted as adding, “An exception was always made, of course, for big-money contributors.”
     The two said they were fired on Harber’s orders because they didn’t agree that they should work full time on Battin’s reelection campaign. They further asserted that, in Batton’s office, Harber was in charge and that Harber was “behind a school busing ‘smear’ letter aimed at” the candidate who had come in 1st.
Ralph "Super D" Diedrich
     It gets better. They also claimed that Harber controlled Supervisors [Ronald] Caspers and [Ralph] Clark and that “He’s working to get a fourth vote on the board right now.” That would be Ralph Diedrich, who did in fact prevail over incumbent Bill Phillips in November of ’72.
     (Diedrich, known as “Super D” owing to his strong personality, became the leader of the pro-development board; he was indicted for bribery in 1977.)
     Polatnick went on: “It is my impression that Harber sees himself as the most powerful man in Orange County—a real kingmaker.” For Harber, such hegemony wasn’t about money but about “political power,” the two men said.
     And so, a few hours later, Harber showed up at the pressroom, denying those claims, chalking them up to the disgruntlement of fired employees.
     “Bob Battin has a respect for my advice and counsel…and many times he will follow that advice, but not always. But I think you will find some other supervisors who will bitterly resent any allegrations [sic] that I control a whole stable of them….”
     Harber asserted that, as he understood it, Polatnick and Abott could not communicate with community groups that had not been represented by their Supe in the past.
     Had he “ordered” Battin to keep his trap shut?
     “That’s not true. I only advised him not to lose his temper and to be careful to explain what he was saying…I would like him to be more urbane but I’ll settle for his honesty and forthrightness. I’m really just a lonely worker in the vineyard….”
     According to the Times, that last sentiment produced “chuckles in the audience.”
     Harber added: “I just strive to help my friends bring better government to Orange County.”
     At that point, Harber left and Battin came up to speak. He said: “Sometimes he [Harber] calls the shots … sometimes he doesn’t. But, if I’m a puppet, how come he left just now?”
     That's pretty lame, dude.
     But what about the alleged orders not to talk to constituents? –That’s when Battin got “earthy.”
     According to the Times,
     Battin denied other allegations that Harber had determined which companies would get county contracts on the basis of compaign contributions to Battin, or that he was favorable only to firms which gave such contributions.
Bob Battin
     On Monday, I wrote about the 1972 bribery trial of the mayor of Westminster, Derek McWhinney (who was ultimately convicted and served time). In that caseHarber and Tom Fuentes’ names came upa farmer alleged that McWhinney and an associate were shaking him down for $10,000. According to the farmer, McWhinney had told him that six people, including he and Fred Harber, “ran” Orange County.
     According to yet another Times article that I have recently discussed, years earlier, Harber had agreed to testify to his part in a bribe scheme in which a developer paid him and a member of the Cypress City Council $2,000 a month.
     These facts never came to light because the City Councilman—Mr. Job Denni—perished in a plane crash in 1966, necessitating abandonment of the case.
     (The "$10K" amount and the "$2K per month" angle were repeated in the bribe story—about a Harber/Caspers shakedown in 1974—that Richard Jordan told in a 1975 deposition in connection with his lawsuit of the County. The County settled, paying Jordan $700,000.)
     The day after Battin’s press conference, supervisorial candidate Ralph “Super D” Diedrich issued a press statement, denying connections with Harber.
     “I want everyone to know that I am my own man,” it said.
     It is clear today that Caspers, Clark, Battin, and Diedrich were indeed in Dick and Doc's stable. And D&D's main man was Harber.

* * *
     Harber’s name comes up again in a 1973 Times article about the OC supervisors’ “unsung” executive assistants (“7 Supervisors’ Aides Fill Vital but Unsung Role,” April 8, 1973).
     Supervisor Clark was quoted as saying,
     “The EAs … are the only ones we can depend upon to give ... [research] to us. Compared to the days when I was a city councilman, I am much better prepared to make decisions. I feel a lot more comfortable and confident, because I have been given the facts by my staff.”
Ronald Caspers
     Evidently, Clark’s view was more or less shared by the other supervisors.
     According to the Times article, in recent memory, the role of the EAs had expanded:
…[I]t is the assistants who act as primary advisers, researchers, office managers and alter egos of the five board members…. Their roles … generally revolve around researching issues, handling constituent problems, checking the weekly board agendas and monitoring the political pulse of the superbvisor’s district. … At other times, it might mean representing the supervisor at a meeting, talking to homeowner groups, working with county department heads and developing and maintaining liaison with city representatives and state legislators…. …[T]he assistants are considered by many to be among the most important persons in county government.
     Naturally, this state of affairs—immense power in the hands of persons unelected and hired and fired at the whim of supervisors—caused worry among watchdog groups. Thus, in 1972 (says the Times article), the OC Grand Jury handed down “a warning that the EAs should not overplay their parts”:
“Since ... [the EA's] advice concerns so many county decisions,” the jury wrote, “each assistant must be chosen carefully with emphasis on practical experience, ability and character as well as personal loyalty to the supervisor for whom he works. … His briefing is invaluable but unless it is reliable and accurate, many problems may result. In any case, the final decision should come from the supervisor and not from the assistant.”
     "Many problems" indeed. What if, for instance, the EA is closely aligned with people—not the supervisor—who have one of those goshdarned nefarious "hidden agendas"? (That's my question, not the Times'.)
     Tom Fuentes, one of Supervisor Caspers’ assistants at the time, explained that his boss is “highly complex” and an introvert. Still, he’s easy to work with, he said.
     Fuentes has lots more to say:
     For Fuentes, the job of an EA is more that of a political adviser, liaison man and personal assistant, since those are his fields of expertise.

     Fuentes offered his description of the perfect assistant:
     “He is a public relations man, a press agent, a protocol officer, political adviser and strategist, budget expert, a strong researcher and devil’s advocate and has master’s degrees in public administration, finance, engineering, social work and government. In addition, he can work 28 hours a day without tiring.”
     Fuentes’ boss, Ronald Caspers, evidently told the Times that
he sees the EA as the supervisor’s protector who minimizes his mistakes and guides him away from pitfalls.
     “They also have to evaluate and make recommendations on agenda items, although I reserve the right to go a different way at times….”
Tom Fuentes, c. 1973
     That seems awfully understated. 
     I don't know about you, dear reader, but it seems to me that, back in the Roaring 70s, depending on the supervisor, an EA could be pretty much anything, including the real brains of the operation. No wonder the Grand Jury fretted!
     The article ends with a focus on former Battin EA Fred "lonely vineyard worker" Harber:
…[U]ndoubtedly, the best-known former EA of all is Fred Harber, a one-time Buena Park city councilman and Cypress city manager, who managed Battin’s winning campaigns in 1968 and 1972.
     Harber, considered by many as a major behind-the-scenes political power in Orange County, recently was picked by former Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh to manage his campaign for Los Angeles mayor [against Sam Yorty].
     Many observers felt that Unruh’s decision was based mostly on Harber’s guidance of Battin’s campaign from what appeared once to be sure defeat to a victory.
     No EA—or former EA—could have been asked to do any better than that.
* * *
     It's pretty obvious that, in truth, Harber was much more than Battin's assistant. He was the guiding force behind, not only hot-headed Battin, but a whole stable of politicians.
     And he was crooked, like so many of his "horses."
     And what about young Tom Fuentes? DtB readers will recall from our extensive "Shooting Star" scribblings that, in the days and weeks following the yacht's disappearance off the coast of Baja, Fuentes had extraordinary authority and staturefor a twenty-five year old "assistant." He seemed to have run the search operation (from Santa Ana), and, at one point (reportedly), it was he who called off the search. 
     Throughout, he was plainly very close to Caspers' wife. (Unsurprisingly, he handled the press.)
     And, even though he had already announced plans to leave Caspers to study to become a priest (see LA Times, May 23, 1974), in the weeks after the tragedy, he was clearly preparing himself to be appointed as Caspers' successor. In fact (evidently), Ronald Reagan had expressed his intention of selecting Fuentes, but then a one-year residency requirement knocked him out of contention. (It's clear that many pols came out of the woodwork, interested in the appointment. At the time, it struck some as unseemly.) So he went back to his original plan: he headed north to St. Patrick's seminary. (A year later, of course, he was back, lobbying for Bein & Frost, hanging with fellow Republicans on the Central Committee, investing in singles bars, etc.)

* * *
     According to the Times ("Caspers Tops Spending Limit, Bents Says," May 14, 1974), two months before the "Shooting Star" tragedy (and a year after the EA article), one of Caspers' Republican primary challengers, Marcia Bents, publicly objected to Caspers' "heavy campaign spending tactics." At the courthouse, accompanied by former OC GOP chief Tom Rogers, she "claimed that Caspers' campaign finance figures show he has broken his promise to hold spending to a limit of 50 cents for each registered voter."
     Oddly, the person on hand to rebut Bents' charges wasn't Caspers. It was Fuentes. 
     Caspers isn't even quoted.

* * *
     Two weeks later, Bents was at it again. According to the Times ("Fund-Raising Tactics by Caspers Criticized," May 31), Bents charged that "Ronald Caspers has 'strong-armed' firms into contributing to his campaign":
     Mrs. Bents, referring to Caspers' latest financial report showing more than $222,000 in contributions, said the firms made contributions "because they were afraid not to give."
     Once again, it is not Caspers who rebuts these charges but Fuentes:
"...[These charges] are only an indication of her own floundering campaign," Fuentes said, "and are unsupported by facts. The people and firms who contribute to Ron do so because they support what he is doing."
     Ignoring the ad hominem, Bents made her case:
     ...Mrs. Bents handed newsmen a list of 26 firms and individuals who have donated or pledged $1000 or more to Caspers' campaign. All of these donors are involved in subdivisions, zone changes, variance use permits, tracts, special projects or contracts with the county.
     "I want to make it clear," she added, "that I am not making the charge that these firms or individuals sought out Caspers and made a donation ... to get an improper concession. I am saying that some of these firms have expressed to me, privately, that they felt they were being forced into making substantial contributions to Caspers' campaign."
     Wow.
     She also presented a signed statement by a former Caspers aide, H. Ronald Jones. Evidently, in the statement, he "charged that he had worked on county time to address and stuff envelopes for a Caspers' testimonial dinner in September, 1971." He also charged "that he had also used county time and a county car to drive to Los Angeles County to pick up materials for Fuentes' campaign for the County Republican Central Committee."
     For Fuentes? The "assistant"?
     Naturally, Fuentes countered with a mere ad hominem, characterizing the former aide as a "disgruntled former employee...."
     Caspers is not quoted in the article.
     [Note to self: McWhinney contributed to Ronald Caspers' campaign in 1970. See Times, 7/8/70.]

See also Mr. Bagman—I spoke with my father and we both remembered a guy who, it turns out, was a close associate of Ronald Caspers before he got the Supervisor gig in 1970. The way my dad remembers it, this guy, Chas. Bottomley, who was one of the adults in our old Boy Scout Troop (#536), was "Caspers' bagman."—Yep, my dad said that without any prompting! Bagman. Or so he was told at the time by a pal at work (I knew that guy, too: Jim C) who part-timed as a bartender in a place Caspers owned next to his S&L. [Actually, I'm not sure my dad understands the connotations of "bagman." Maybe not sinister after all.]
     It's a small world. And darker than you imagine.

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