Fuentes credits former Supervisor Ronald Caspers for much of his political rearing.
* in me needs to say that falsehoods in general, and courtesy distortions—for instance, whitewashing the lurid facts of a newly-deceased cad’s record—in particular, are enemies of morality.–LA Times, 1985
And that is why I am eager to counter the absurd notion that Tom Fuentes was, in his extra-familial roles, a good and even a great man.
I do not adopt this stance because I reject his “politics”—“Neanderthal” is the adjective I have used for that. I am able, more so than some others I think, to respect people across the political spectrum with whom I disagree. —Even cave people.
The problem with Tom Fuentes, in my opinion, isn’t his philosophical positions about, say, the role of religion in politics, the value of freedom in the marketplace, or the importance and proper role of private property, etc. —Whatever, man. No, the problem is how he pursues his values, such as they are—er, were.
(Note: I'm leaving aside Fuentes' role in the horrific scandal afflicting the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. I shall leave that matter in the able hands of Gustavo Arellano.)
* * *
To this day, Nixon's spirit seems to animate Fuentes. Close your eyes and listen to Fuentes, and you will hear precisely enunciated cadences of R.N.
"He models himself after Richard Nixon," said Peer Swan, a Newport Beach businessman who has clashed with Fuentes. "He acts and talks like him, and has those big sweeping gestures like Richard Nixon."
–LA Times, 1996
When he was twelve years old, Fuentes was already a supporter of the man who would become his idol—Richard Nixon. During that campaign, which pitted Nixon against Catholic John Kennedy, Fuentes proudly wore his "Nixon" button to his Catholic school.
Tom’s curious youthful enthusiasm for local and national politics did not wane. In college—first at Santa Ana, then at Chapman—Fuentes presided over the Young Republicans. By 1968, at about age twenty, he came to the attention of Ronald Caspers, a businessman/banker who sought political office, namely, a seat on the county board for the 5th Supervisorial district.
Caspers, of course, was a Republican.
Fuentes became his chief assistant, famously managing Caspers' successful campaign against respected Republican incumbent, Alton Allen. (More about that below.)
Later, of course, Fuentes would noisily declare the imperative to support Republican incumbents and denounce and "discourage" Republican challengers. Here we have one of The Fuentean Contradictions—a large and bewildering class. He seems to have participated, most foully, in precisely the dastardly deed he piously condemned.
Though he was the manager of Caspers' 1970 victory, Tom’s role in Caspers’ seriously hinky efforts to defeat incumbent Alton Allen (including an attempted recall) and seat himself on the OC Board of Supes is unclear to me; I can find no detailed accounts of the campaign. In any event, it appears that, at least in the opinion of then-OC GOP chairman, Tom Rogers, the endeavor was a no-holds-barred descent into unscrupulousness, a rip-roaring, Karl Rovian** mud-chuck. (Explained below.)
Further, the people behind Caspers—landowner Richard O’Neill and doctor Louis Cella—were profoundly corrupt; they were the originators, really, of the style of corruption that has come to define OC politics. For a time, they were successful: according to Cecil Hicks, the OC DA who finally addressed this corruption, O’Neill and Cella actually ran a “shadow government."
And one of the men O'Neill and Cella controlled was Ron Caspers, who, as events would reveal, was key to the O'Neill/Caspers coalition's continued flourishing.
* * *
On Democratic voters [Fuentes] says are unaware of the "evils" their party has perpetrated: "It's a little like good Germans denying the existence of the Holocaust."—LA Times, 1996
|Louis Cella ("Doc")|
Cella and a very wealthy Orange County rancher and developer, Richard O'Neill, formed a political and business alliance known as "Dick and Doc," that was, in effect, a shadow government. It placed four sycophants [Ralph Diedrich, Caspers, Robert Battin, & Ralph Clark] on the five-member Board of Supervisors [three Democrats plus Republican Ronald Caspers], and Cella's Santa Ana medical clinic [he owned two hospitals] had a wing devoted to political operations.Writes Walters, back in 1975, he and his reporting partner, Al Donner, worked laboriously on a story about the “Cella-O’Neill machine”:
While I concentrated on Orange County, [my partner] delved into [State Controller Ken] Cory's appointments of campaign donors and their relatives as "inheritance tax referees" – some of whom were tied to the Orange County machine.Back in 1976, Walters and Donner suggested that the death of Caspers and Harber was a major blow to the Dick and Doc operation—perhaps the beginning of the end for the "shadow government":
The deeper we dug, the more tangled the story became, such as the murder of one tax referee*** as he desperately sought reappointment by Cory, and the never-solved mystery of a yacht that vanished off Baja California. There were 10 people aboard, including the machine's chief political operative, Fred Harber, and Ronald Caspers, an Orange County supervisor and banker who had financed the hospitals.
We uncovered indications of Mafia involvement, including an obscure company partially owned by a known Mafia figure from Las Vegas who was involved in one Orange County land deal.
Donner and I wrote thousands of words, but we always suspected that we had barely scratched the surface.
With Harber’s passing, Cella was forced to move into the open, and investigators began taking an interest in his complex of business affairs. Orange County District Attorney Cecil Hicks, perhaps the only major Orange County official openly hostile to Cella and O’Neill, has called Cella the man behind “a shadow government”.THE EL TORO LAND DEAL. Also back in 76, Walters and Donner reported:
The influence of Cella and O’Neill in county government is apparent in many ways. A prime example is the El Toro case. El Toro Land Company was formed as a partnership in 1970 to develop a 39-acre parcel along the San Diego Freeway in Orange County. One of the original partners, with a $25,000 investment, was Albert Parvin, one-time Las Vegas casino-owner and head of the Parvin-Dohrmann Company and the Parvin Foundation. Meyer Lansky, reputed Mafia financial brain, was one of Parvin’s partners in the Flamingo Hotel and the Parvin Foundation had former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on its payroll for $12,000 per year – a revelation that sparked an impeachment effort against Douglas several years ago. Cella, O’Neill and Harber bought into El Toro Land in 1971 and remain as major partners, along with Parvin, according to corporate records. Shortly after they bought in, the Orange County Board of Supervisors took emergency action to establish a freeway interchange adjacent to that property and the land increased in value by 600 percent, county records show. (See Unscrambling Dick and Doc’s financial and political empire, California Journal; January 1976)TAKING OUT ALTON ALLEN. To get a sense of the ethics of Cella/O’Neill's boy Caspers, consider this account, written by the chair of the OC GOP during this period, Tom Rogers:
The incumbent in the 5th [OC Supervisorial] district was [Republican] Alton Allen [born: 1897], a retired banker, who lived in … Laguna Beach….At this point, Rogers turns briefly to Tom Fuentes:
Allen was widely respected for his representation of the 5th District, which included the beach communities of Newport, Balboa, Laguna, and San Clemente, plus the vast inland areas held by the Irvine Ranch and the Rancho Mission Viejo, with thousands of acres devoted to agricultural production.
It came as a rude shock when, in 1969, a tabloid-type mailer was received by residents of the 5th District alleging wrongdoing on the part of Allen and his staff. Allen’s reputation for honesty and integrity had been undoubted.... Campaign finance reporting requirements were almost nonexistent in those days, so it was impossible to determine who was behind this puzzling attack, which was to develop into a recall movement. Anthony Tarantino, one of the nominal sponsors of the mailer, … was a man of modest means and it was obvious that there was someone else, unidentified, who was engaged in the expensive campaign to destroy Alton Allen’s character.
. . .
The mysterious anti-Allen forces opened a headquarters in Laguna Hills from which to launch a formal recall campaign. The mailers kept arriving with insinuations of Allen’s “wrongdoing.” Staff at the recall headquarters refused any information to the press that had become interested in the plot. The Alton Allen recall petition failed to obtain sufficient signatures and it is doubtful that the exercise was anything other than to prepare the way for the upcoming supervisorial election in the 5th District. Alton Allen’s campaign for reelection was close at hand.
. . .
It would be revealed later that Tarantino had ties to Lou Cella, Fred Harber, and others identified by [Supervisor] Robert Battin as “the Coalition.” Battin, in an attempt to depict his own conviction as discriminatory, revealed the existence of the group, which also included [OC land baron] R.J. O’Neill.
Supervisor Robert Battin
. . .
The original plan to recall Allen was scrubbed when it was decided that if Allen were recalled, Governor Reagan would probably appoint his assistant John Killifer, who was in no way connected to the scheme….
. . .
Robert Battin was to use his position on the Board of Supervisors to make Allen look inept in dealing with certain issues. [Local politician] Paul Carpenter also admitted to being part of the recall effort much later, but denied knowledge of the other Coalition members being involved. Carpenter claimed that the clandestine effort was confined to himself and a Republican who aspired to be a supervisor.
Emerging out of the shadows was Ron Caspers, a Republican who was the owner of Keystone Savings and Loan in Westminster. In the beginning there were suspicions expressed that he was the moving force behind Allen’s recall, a charge he denied but which was later confirmed in the course of several unrelated criminal prosecutions.
. . .
Allen’s reelection campaign received no help from the GOP, and his campaign staff were amateurs, at best. Alton never recovered from the personal attacks and he went down to defeat.
. . .
With Caspers’ election, Orange County politics were turned upside down. It was the dawning of a new era, and whether Caspers was a Republican or a Democrat, the special interests flocked to his office confident that they had a supervisor with whom they could do “business.”
The fact he claimed to be a Republican had little to do with the support he received from the Coalition. That group supported other Republicans including Larry Schmit for supervisor. [Another politician in the Coalition's stable: Robert Citron.]
Caspers is rumored to have indicated that important county appointments, such as the Planning Commission, would cost an applicant $15,000.
Caspers hired a young graduate of Chapman College who had helped in his campaign to serve on this staff. As Casper’s assistant, Tom Fuentes ... worked diligently to convince Republicans that Caspers was not what many party regulars feared, an unscrupulous opportunist who had no permanent loyalty to any political party. Fuentes was aided in his duties by the ubiquitous Frank Michelena. Michelena, a lobbyist with a checkered career, was notorious in the field of political influence. [See.]
|Tom with mentor, Ron Caspers, c. 1973|
NASTY DEVELOPERS—AMONG OTHERS. The bogeymen of Rogers' book's**** saga of the OCGOP's descent from principle are developers—but, in this case, it was the politician who initiated the era of "government for sale":
In this election , it appears that the candidate preceded the special interests, and it was after his election that Caspers made the contacts and set the ground rules for developer participation in the grand scheme of patronage carried to an exponential degree.In Orange County, that's never stopped, says Rogers.
Rogers bring up a weird wrinkle in the Caspers saga:
In a later criminal case, a paid informant with reputed ties to organized crime would allege that Caspers had received a $600,000 loan from two banks, Coast and U.S. National. The informant, Gene Conrad, had been working with the district attorney’s office in an attempt to connect the Board of Supervisors to the syndicate. Conrad’s testimony did not bear out the suspicion of the D.A. that supervisors had been provided with interest-free loans from gambling interests. Conrad stated that his research had determined that the loan in question did carry interest. Whether it was ever paid back remains a mystery.
SHAKEDOWN. Then there was the period from Caspers’ election in 1970 until his peculiar death in June of 1974. During that time (or part of it), Fuentes was a “consultant” for Caspers’ S&L. (Caspers provided some of the financial backing for Doc's hospitals.) Further, Tom was Caspers’ right-hand man at the County. By the time of Caspers’ death in '74, Tom was Caspers’ “executive assistant,” and he was expected to be Caspers’ replacement on the board—indeed, then-Governor Reagan made an announcement to that effect, but the appointment was undone by Fuentes’ failure to meet a residency requirement.
* * *
|Fuentes meets his hero; he had met him before, at age 14, at the OC Fairgrounds|
“If [Ron] Caspers had lived, we would have had the votes to stop [DA Cecil] Hicks,” said Cella. “He was a very strong vote against Cecil and he disliked Cecil even more than Fred [Harber] did.”
—OC Magazine, 1984
Some have suggested that, using his county office as a base, Caspers and his associate, Fred Harber, participated in a "shakedown" operation. According to former OC GOP chair Tom Rogers,
...[Caspers' associate Fred] 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….In his excellent 1984 article, "The Sinking of a Political Machine" (which suggested that the demise of Caspers/Harber was also the beginning of the end of Dick and Doc), 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:
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. 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 during rough weather.]
In the end the county paid off $700,000 to Jordan’s company…, as a result of losses caused by the extortion scheme. [For excerpts of Rogers' book, see here.]
...[E]vidence that Harber and Caspers were up to potentially dangerous mischief at the time surfaced four years [after the sinking of "Shooting Star"]. In 1978, developer Richard V. Jordan alleged in a suit against the county that the two were trying to shake him down for a $10,000 payoff plus $2000 a month for approval of a project he wanted to build near El Toro, in Caspers’ supervisorial district.
The county settled out of court on Jordan’s claim that the county illegally revoked his building permit, paying him $700,000. The matter was investigated by the district attorney’s office to determine whether persons still alive might be criminally liable, but that probe ended inconclusively.
As it turns out, preliminary discussion concerning the alleged deal took place in Mexican waters aboard the Shooting Star, Jordan said in papers filed with his lawsuit.
Before the arrangement could be consummated, however, Caspers, Harber and the others departed on the fateful trip. Ironically, Jordan said, he was invited along, but declined because he didn’t think the Shooting Star was seaworthy. But the Coast Guard cited reports that deficiencies on the boat had been corrected prior to the trip.
Jordan, the record shows, knew how to seek and obtain remedies for his grievance in a court of law. But one is tempted to ask: Were Harber and/or Caspers using the same routine on anyone else, perhaps someone prone to resort to different—and more violent—remedies?....
* * *
In speeches, Fuentes rails against the "Westside liberals" and the "San Francisco Democrats" as if they were a disease.
—LA Times, 1996
SINS OF THE FATHER. It seems highly unlikely that an honest assessment of Mr. Caspers today could yield anything but a highly negative outcome. The tragic nature and timing of his death in 1974, occurring as it did before the Cella shite hit the fan, prevented any clear assessment of the man, and that fact, I think, has made Tom Fuentes' career as a Republican leader possible.
I have asked reporters who worked in Orange County during the relevant period whether it is conceivable that Tom Fuentes, a very bright guy who was intimately involved in Ron Caspers' business and political affairs, could have been uninvolved in Caspers’ hinky ways and means, as described above.
Did he participate in any of that? “I don’t know about that,” one reporter who covered OC politics at the time told me. “But it is very hard to imagine,” he said, “that Fuentes was unaware of it.”
THE "BAGMAN" MOMENT. A dozen years after Caspers’ death, Fuentes had become the Chair of the OC GOP. When one impressive and ambitious young man, Nathan Rosenberg, who had been a leader in the local Young Republicans, dared to run for local office against a GOP incumbent, he encountered considerable push-back from Chairman Fuentes. During a TV debate, he was reminded of one of Fuentes’ criticisms. Rosenberg shot back with, “Coming from Ron Caspers' bagman, I don't feel bad about Mr. Fuentes' comment” (see).
* * *
"[Fuentes] said my business would be ruined, and that my husband's business would be ruined," said [former Superior Court Judge Judith] Ryan, a [Republican] challenger to U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan for his seat in 1992. "I was taken aback."
–LA Times, 1996I've spoken with some Orange County reporters who take seriously, or are at least intrigued by, the "rumor" that Fuentes, who was supposed to be on the Shooting Star's ill-fated trip, may have had something to do with the ship's sinking.
The evidence for that is pretty shaky, I think. But reporter Peterson, for one, seemed to think the "murder" hypothesis (not necessarily by Fuentes) was worth exploring.
More on that in future installments....
SEE ALSO: What sank "Shooting Star"?
* I teach philosophy at Irvine Valley College. My training (at UCI) emphasized ethics (and political philosophy).
** Ever the cheerleader, Mr. Fuentes established the Republican Party of Orange County Lee Atwater Award. Not sure if he also established a Roy Cohn prize.
*** Note to self: Arlene Hoffman's murder. Her husband.
**** The excellent Agents' Orange (2000), by Tom Rogers; no longer in print. I approached three libraries that supposedly possessed the book. Curiously, in each case, it was missing from library shelves. I finally found a copy at IVC of all places!