Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The corruption files: early seventies (Fuentes, Michelena, et al.)


     In the early seventies, there seemed to be a recognition in the OC that the county was entering an era of increasing corruption or quasi-corruptionwhich, of course, it had done, especially with regard to county government. Perhaps no one at the time imagined how bad things would become:
     “From 1974-77, an eye-popping 43 Orange County political figures were indicted, among them, two congressmen, three supervisors and the county assessor, according to the California Journal” (Jeffe, 1996).
     And Tom Fuentes was there, in Hinky Town, pretty much at ground zero.
     Lots of that corruption and criminality concerned “Dick and Doc” (Richard O’Neill and Dr. Louis Cella) and their stable of pols, including many Democrats and some Republicans. It is entirely possible that Ronald Caspers, another Dick & Doc pol, was "spared" from indictment the hard way: by his and Harber's mysterious 1974 deaths, along with eight others, off the coast of Baja. 
     (On the other hand, some say that incident took away the very people who could have prevented DA Cecil Hicks' prosecutions.)

Louis Cella
     THE NEW BOARD MAJORITY. One aspect of the aforementioned recognition was some worried talk about “lobbyists” and their influence on government officials. Consider, for instance, Evan Maxwell’s “Lobbyists: Dealers in Trust and Compromise” (LA Times, 2/20/72). In that article, an anonymous OC city councilman seems pretty steamed about the emerging influence of lobbyists; he said, “There is something unclean about somebody [i.e., a lobbyist] who uses the trust of a public official to sell him a project…A lobbyist has to be a prostitute. He sells his trust to the highest bidder.”
     (Pace prostitutes!)
     But, in that article, there were also plenty of Orange Countians defending lobbyists. One professional lobbyist that Maxwell interviewed, Chip Cleary, rejected the assumption that there is any conflict between the public interest and the interests of the lobbyist’s typical client. And if a conflict were to come up, he said, “My advocacy would be on the side of the public interest. Our own self-interest, all of us, lies with the public interest, not any selfish private interest…Our interests are all connected.”
     I do believe that people were more trusting forty years ago and, perhaps, Mr. Cleary’s remarks weren’t then manifestly ridiculous to all, as they surely are today.
     The election of 1970 produced two new Supes: Ronald Caspers, who had wielded unprecedented amounts of money and remarkably devious and dishonorable tactics during the campaign, and Ralph Clark, another big spender. Both were tied to O’Neill/Cella/Harber.
     Dick and Doc had managed to seat one of their own on the BOS earlier, back in 1968namely, the mavericky and loose-cannonish Robert Battin.
     A few months into the 1971 BOS, observers discerned a possible “basic philosophical shift” between the majority of Battin, Clark, and Caspers—Dick and Doc’s people—and the minority, the two old-timers: William J. Phillips (who joined the board in 1957) and David L. Baker (who joined in 1963). The new guys seemed to want to change things, and the old guard pushed back a bit.
     There didn’t seem to be widespread recognition yet of the actual unifying principle of the apparent Battin/Clark/Caspers block—namely, O’Neill/Cella/Harber and (at least on the part of Cella and Harber) an embrace of lucrative varieties of “pay to play” (bribes, shakedowns, etc.). With the exception of some political insiders, that recognition came later, I think. So people talked about the board as dysfunctional and divided, and the notion that there was a kind of vision ("selfish private interest") behind the majority’s movement for "change" was only a hazy and undefined theory. (See “Supervisors take stock after a stormy beginning,” LA Times, 3/21/71.)

Robert Battin
     A COMPARISON. Please excuse my parochialism—my political understanding, such as it is, grew out of my participation in battles, starting in 1996, within the South Orange County Community College District—but: 
     The new BOS “board majority” of 1971 really reminds me of the majority that emerged on the SOCCCD Board of Trustees (BOT) in December of 1996, which comprised Steve Frogue, John Williams, Teddi Lorch, and newcomer (and transitioning Democrat) Dorothy Fortune. Even though three of the four had been on the board for years, their attainment of majority block status at the end of 1996 inspired them to impose their crude “conservative” philosophy on the district, one that held no respect for how things had been done and the judgment of those who did them. This board wielded groundless skepticism or cynicism of faculty programs ("study abroad" programs in Costa Rica and later Cuba), routinely rejected the advice and urgings of administration, and imposed a clueless and ham-fisted reorganization on the district, the unfortunate consequences of which can still be felt today.
     The BOS of 1971 did similar things with similar arrogance. In the 1971 Times article, Battin is quoted as saying,
     “The old board was influenced by the traditional approach to things,” he explains. “They were more apt to look at things from the standpoint of whatever is good for big business was good for Orange County.” [See.] ¶ “This group will have a greater awareness of keeping Orange County as a desirable place to live, even if it means going against big business at times. [Battin acknowledged that there would be some 3/2 votes:] ¶ “The difference is that the majority will swing back and forth depending upon the issue involved,” he said. ¶ Asked why the board placed all county department heads on a 30-day employment basis until after budget time in July, Battin said it was because he feels all department heads should have their jobs examined closely.
     Of course, some observers (e.g., onetime OC GOP chair Tom Rogershave suggested that, contrary to Battin’s progressive blather, the arrival of (especially) Caspers signaled the beginning of an era in which the interests of Orange Countiansin wise development, maintaining the county’s rural characterwere systematically thwarted in favor of the interests of rich developers.
     Dick and Doc’s chief political advisor, Fred Harber, was tied to each of the three new majority Supes. In the Times article, Clark feels compelled to answer a question about pressures applied by outside groups by attempting to diminish Harber’s role in his recent campaign. (Why bring up that name?) Battin and Harber, of course, were very close. Earlier, I described an episode in which Battin felt compelled to make a public statement to the effect that he was not Fred Harber’s “puppet.” (He protested too much, methinks.) We know that Caspers and Harber became very close, though I’m not sure when that started. They seemed to be working very closely together at least by 1973 by I'm sure that happened earlier.
     ("In 1968, Robert Battin, a Santa Ana lawyer, won a 12-way race to become the first Orange County Democratic supervisor since the Depression. Much of the reason for his success was the financial backing of two wealthy Democratic activists, land developer Fred Harber and Santa Ana physician Lou Cella. ¶ Two years later, again with the backing of Cella and Harber, Ralph Clark became the board's second Democrat. Cella and Harber also helped Republican Ron Caspers that year. Ralph Diedrich became the board's third Democrat in 1972, also supported by Cella and Harber.From "Board's clout peaked with controversial reign of Democratic coalition," Chris Knap, July 17, 1988, OC Register.)
     In any case, Harber was the brains (politically) of the Dick and Doc Show, and Caspers was in the Dick and Doc stable—certainly by 1969 (likely before that).

Tom Fuentes
     CURIOUS ADVOCATES OF CLEANER GOVERNMENT. Early in 1971, Battin made a move that, prima facie, was an effort to make county government cleaner, though I must confess that I regard this future jailbird's effort with unmitigated cynicism. Evidently, he requested some sort of “lobbyist registration” ordinance, but that inspired considerable debate on the board, though it appears that, in the end, the Supes scrambled variously to make themselves look like advocates of lobbyist registration. They could not, however, agree on the details.
     I found a 1972 article that describes the board as "delaying" a vote on a proposed registration ordinance ("Supervisors Delay Vote on Proposal to Register Lobbyists," 8/16/72) to consider "amendments creating a tough governmental code of ethics." Battin was noisily against any delay, and I suspect he hoped voters would read his haste and noise as commitment to clean government.
     Battin there cites the "Mile Square" bribery case as something that would have been prevented had his kind of ordinance been in effect. That's odd (or just shameless and bold), for it seems likely that Battin's "puppeteer," Fred Harber, was up to his eyeballs in the Mile Square doings. (In the course of the trial, the mayor of Westminster [and defendant], Derek McWhinney, was quoted as claiming that six people, including he and Harber, ran the County. Let's see: O'Neill, Cella, Harber, McWhinney—and two others. Who? [My guess: Michelena and Fuentes.] See here.)
     Curiously, Battin's ordinance got support from an unlikely character: Frank Michelena, a notorious and influential lobbyist who was very connected to Dick and Doc and Caspers. (You'll recall that, according to Tom Rogers, Tom Fuentes and Michelena worked together in the early seventies.)
     According to the article, Michelena "considered the ordinance a step forward for Orange County government." ¶ "It should be broader however," he added, "to cover not only those who work for pay but also those who lobby for political purposes."
     In an article that appeared over a year later ("County delays action on lobbyist measure," Times, 10/24/73), we learn that the lobbyist registration measure had still not been approved. The latest delay was caused by a "challenge to include provisions for 'honesty in government' as well."
     What a dysfunctional (or just corrupt?) crew.
     New Supervisor Ralph Diedrich (who, backed with big money, had defeated Phillips in '72) said he wanted "to study suggestions that county employes [sic], 'including supervisors,' also be required to report any gratuities or gifts they receive." 
     Diedrich, of course, would be an odd choice for "honest government" poster boy: he was later convicted of soliciting a bribe from a developer, among other things. (He resigned in 1979 and then served a prison term.)
     Once again, some Supes rejected Battin's proposal or at least its latest version. Battin then "charged that the other board members already had been influenced by lobbyists."
     (Battin was a bit of a hot head and loudmouth—a Democratic Don Wagner.)
     Once again, Frank Michelena magically emerges as a supporter of Battin's ordinance: "Michelena said the burden of registration should lie with the lobbyists and he argued against exempting attorneys."
     I don't know whatever became of the ordinance. I do know that, after the political scandals erupted in the mid-70s, Shirley Grindle pushed for a campaign reform ordinance, known as TINCUP (1978), but it has proven to be inadequate. In 2008, the OC grand jury recommended that TINCUP be updated. (Don't recall what happened next.)
     But get this: a year and a half ago, the "Orange County supervisors ... voted to remain the state's only large county without any kind of registration requirements for lobbyists" (See OC is still the Wild West for lobbyists, Voice of OC, 11/9/10).
     Good freakin' grief.

Ronald Caspers
      CASPERS' SPECIAL INVITATION. Back in early 1972, the head of a local anti-tax group—together with the Register’s lawyer—got a judge to issue a restraining order “on the use of county tax funds to pay for the one-day trip [to Sacramento] for county supervisors and department heads” (see “Court Blocks Funds for Sacramento Trip; County Officials Faced With Paying Own Costs,” Times, 4/7/72).
     The trip came about because of an invitation, sent out in early May by Supervisor Caspers, to attend the April opening of a county lobbying office in Sacramento. (I assume the office housed those hired by the county to influence state legislators. Presumably, this is a relatively wholesome form of lobbying.)
     A surprisingly large group was invited, though the core of invitees were Supervisors and department heads. This group was treated to plane travel and an expensive luncheon at the famously luxurious Firehouse Restaurant. On the menu: “two wines, beef tenderloin and strawberries in champagne for dessert.”
     Among the invited: Supervisor Robert Battin; his executive aid, Steve Polatnick; Medical Center Administrator Robert White; Gene White, administrative aide to Supervisor William Phillips; County Administrative Officer Robert Thomas; Board of Supervisors Chairman Ronald Caspers; Supervisor Phillips; County Assessor Andrew Hinshaw [who was convicted of accepting bribes in 1977]; Tax Collector Robert Citron; Recorder J. Wylie Carlyle; Harbors and Parks Director Kenneth Sampson; Probation Officer Margaret Grier; Public Information Officer Christine Galanis; Planning Director Forest Dickason; and Casper’s two executive aides, Tom Fuentes and Paul White. (Owing to the restraining order, several of these people did not actually attend. For many, the order was handed to them too late to prevent the trip/luncheon.)
     According to the April 7 Times article, “The new suit alleges that the use of tax funds for a trip to Sacramento to open the lobbying office was ‘an improvident expense.’”
     Maybe yes, maybe no. But it sure was interesting.
     Once again, Frank Michelena’s name comes up. According to the Times, he arranged for the lunch at the pricey restaurant. “Michelena is a governmental advocate in Orange County who once served as executive aides to Supervisor Williams Phillips and currently represents several clients before various county departments and the Board of Supervisors.”

     Why wouldn't a guy like that wine and dine these county officials? ('Cause it looks dishonest, is why.)
     That crazy "champagne strawberries" lunch idea sure sounds like something that Tom Fuentes dreamed up. And, of course, he was there.
     A week and a half later, there was a hearing in which several people testified. According to the Times (April 19) “Frank Michelena, owner of a public relations firm, said he volunteered to pay for the cocktail reception and wine served with the luncheon.”
     The judge indicated that he would make his decision within a few days.
     A week later, the judge essentially threw out the case. According to the Times (April 26),

     Superior Judge Kenneth Williams denied a request for a preliminary injunction aimed at preventing Orange County from using tax money to pay for county officers’ transportation to Sacramento and lunch at the opening of a new lobbying office. In denying the request, Judge Williams also dissolved a temporary restraining order, thus clearing the way for the county to pay the bills….
     Dang. Do you suppose Williams was responding to pressures? Gosh, I just don't know.

3 comments:

  1. Well, Orange County did have a reputation to develop and then keep in place. Somehow that helps set us apart from other counties. Money buys things and people and more money buys more.

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  2. Well, politicians and those who are in their wake, need some experience--mostly in the dark arts of corruption, deception, hypocrisy.

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  3. Tom's corruption scent still comes from his last resting place: corruption lives on, sadly. It's infectious.

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