Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Louis Cella's trial: Harber, Overby, Hoffman and unanswered questions


     This morning, I read a May 9, 1976 LA Times article, a substantial piece of reporting about the trial of the infamous Dr. Louis Cella, who, along with OC land baron Richard O'Neill, ran a campaign financing scheme in the 1970s—benefitting mostly Democratic candidates but also Republicans such as Ron Caspers—known as the "Dick and Doc Show" ("The Case Against Dr. Cella: Bits and Pieces of Paper").
     It was reported by Richard O'Reilly and Tracy Wood. These days, Wood is Senior Writer for The Voice of OC. Don't know about O'Reilly.
     Cella's business interests involved two hospitals, which devoted substantial square footage to non-medical workers and such non-medical activities as printing. Here, hospital funds would be directed to various persons and vendors. Ultimately, Cella was found guilty of a host of illegal activities, including fraud against the state and feds.
     According to the article, one of the ways in which money was dispersed—often to persons having no clear relationship to the hospital(s)—was through postage refunds issued as treasury checks or postal money orders. Presumably, this helped obscure the money trail from Cella to payees:
     The Grand Jury devoted a full day to testimony by Postal Inspector Peter Hickok about how the hospitals spent at least $145,000 on postage for political campaign mailings.
     He said the hospital checks would set up bulk mailing accounts or buy credit on postage meters. But not all of the postage would be used and refunds would be issued in the form of treasury checks or postal money orders.
     The practice involved about a dozen post offices, but at the time Hickok testified, he said, his investigation was incomplete. He said records showed that refunds totaling more than $92,000 were obtained from two post offices alone—Santa Ana and Cypress. Of that, $55,000 went to Butcher, he said.
     Butcher, who has repeatedly refused to be interviewed by Times reporters, was not called as a witness by the Orange County Grand Jury. He was called before the federal grand jury, however, where he reportedly refused to testify.
The O'Neill family (c. 1950)
     "Butcher" was William Butcher of the campaign consulting firm "Butcher-Forde," which became notorious for bringing computer-assisted mailings and new levels of demagoguery and dirty tricks to OC politics. According to Tom Rogers, B-F were also important in the rise of the influence of developers in OC. 
     Fred Harber, Dick and Doc's chief political advisor, was very close to Butcher-Forde. He was also close to Cella, O'Neill, and Caspers.
     You'll recall that lobbyist Lyle Overby has come up again and again in our saga of curious, Fuentes-related political activity forty years ago and thereafter. He, too, received these curious postal refunds:
     Another person who is recorded as having received postage refunds is Lyle Overby, now an aide to Supervisor Ralph Diedrich. In 1974, Overby received $4,600 in 16 money orders acting as an agent for [codefendant Theodore] Schiffman, Hickok testified.
     Overby, who was then working for the late Fred Harber, has refused to respond to a Times query as to what he did with the money.
     Hickok told the jury it is highly unusual for refunds that large to be made in money orders, which are limited to a maximum of $300 each. (Money orders are issued with the payee’s name blank so that the person obtaining the money order can make it payable to anyone he wishes without anyone else knowing.)
     Why did Overby receive payment in so odd and inconvenient a fashion? And just what was he being paid for? Brain surgery?
     You'll recall that Harber's secretary was a woman named Arlene Hoffman, who was ultimately murdered in her Laguna Niguel home (with a cross bow!) twenty years later. That crime was never solved. (See Who killed Arlene Hoffman? ) (Incidentally, Overby had recommended Hoffman to Supervisor Silva, for whom Hoffman was working when she was killed.)
     She was a witness at Cella's trial, but she was decidedly uncooperative:
Tracy Wood (these days)
     Another mystery man in the transcripts is Fred Harber, a political strategist who was closely teamed with Cory, Cella and O’Neill until he was lost at sea with nine others in June, 1974, when his boat sank off Baja California.
     The Grand Jury called Harber’s executive secretary, Mrs. Arlene Hoffman, to testify, but she repeatedly claimed not to know many details of his work.
     Mrs. Hoffman was paid by the hospitals from 1972 until last fall, but told the jury she didn’t do much work at either hospital until after Harber’s death.
     Before that she worked with Harber in Jesse Unruh’s 1973 mayoral campaign in Los Angeles, Democratic Party fund raising, and in the 1974 primary campaigns of Cory, Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Santa Ana) and Rep. Jerry Patterson (D-Calif.)
     Mrs. Hoffman testified that Harber was a consultant to the hospitals and said she considered the work she did on politics as public relations for the hospitals.
     (However, Patterson told the Times he was not aware she was being paid by the hospitals during the time Harber was working on his congressional campaign.
     (“If there was public relations for the hospitals, they were doing it very subltey,” [sic] Patterson said. “I didn’t know there was a connection with the hospital.”)
     Dep. Dist. Atty. Brice repeatedly tried to get details of Harber’s activities from Mrs. Hoffman, usually without success.
     “Can you tell us anything that he did for Mission Hospital?” Brice asked. “If he was a landscaper there, you could tell us he planted 15 trees regardless of the day or when it occurred, or if he was a nurse, you could say he changed bed pans or something. Do you know something that Fred Harber did related to the activities of Mission Hospital?”
     “No. I can’t answer that question for you; I can only speak in generalities,” Mrs. Hoffman testified.
     One of the “generalities” was that shortly before his death Harber was working on contracts to help large construction firms win approval for their projects from city and county governments.
     What was Hoffman's motive in revealing so little about her and Harber's activities? By the time of the trial, Harber had been dead for nearly two years. Was she motivated by loyalty? By self-interest? (Note: Pam Zanelli, later a SOCCCD PIO, was among those working in the "political" wing of the hospital at the time.)
     You'll recall that, according to developer Richard Jordan, Harber and Caspers were shaking him down for "help" in overcoming county non-approvals that his construction project had encountered. This was at the time of the Shooting Star sinking in June of 1974.


     Caspers, Harber, and eight other men perished in that disaster. Their bodies were never found despite a massive search. (Cella desperately searched for his man Harber long after the "official" searches were abandoned.)
     Like Tom Fuentes, Lyle Overby was supposed to be on that fateful boat trip. But he bailed after its first leg (to Cabo San Lucas). Richard Jordan was also invited but declined (for he wanted the DA to record conversations, which would have been impossible in Mexico).
     It's all very odd.

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