Sunday, April 1, 2012

Orange County incomporuption: toward a "big picture"

A young Tom Fuentes and his hero, Richard Nixon, San Clemente
     A couple of days ago, somebody over at the Orange Juice Blog beefed about corruption and incompetence in OC government. (See Orange County Government Melting Down, by OBNO.)
     That’s like Arizonans complaining about the heat.
     But in Orange County, incompetence/corruption ("incomporuption") varies from bad to extreme from era to era. We’re in the midst of a so-so era, incomporuption-wise. We've seen worse.
     Carps OBNO, “it looks like no one on the Board of Supervisors is interested in or capable of doing the things it takes to effectively run a large organization. Things like team building, leadership, ethical behavior and vision come to mind as essential characteristics that seem to be lacking. It also looks like the job of attracting and retaining top talent to run the various county programs is not a priority for the Supervisors either.”
     OBNO notes the obvious recent examples, including “the multi-year saga of disarray in the office of the County Public Guardian/Public Administrator position resulting from a Board-driven appointment of [long-time SOCCCD trustee] John Williams to the Public Guardian position against the advice of key county staff….”
     Here on DtB, we’ve pursued various stories increasingly in relation to the larger fabric of corruption and cronyism that is OC politics. The truth is, you can’t make sense of guys like John Williams, Tom Fuentes, Don Wagner, or Dave Lang unless you understand county politics, the OC GOP Central Committee, and trends and factoids of the last, ten or twenty years.
     Besides, anyone who’s been reading DtB for a while knows that we have an interest in the past, and especially OC’s past—e.g., the appearance of the KKK in the 20s, the doings of ranchers and farmers and businessmen in the 19th Century, the adventures of Madame Helena Modjeska in Anaheim and in the Santa Anas, etc.

     TOM FUENTES. One figure who has been present for a huge chunk of OC political history—from the late sixties to the present, more than 40 years—is our own trustee Tom Fuentes, who, as near as I can tell, is in the last stages of terminal cancer but who nevertheless has maintained oars in the political waters throughout his remarkably long good-bye. (I recently noticed that he is listed as the campaign co-chair for OC Board of Education trustee Ken Williams’ June reelection bid!)
     So here’s some OC incomporuption history—from the perspective of someone attempting to understand the highly odd Mr. Tom Fuentes.

* * * * *
Ron Caspers (1931-1974)
     RON CASPERS & THE BOARD OF SUPES. It turns out that, at least according to some of my sources, the Orange County Board of Supes were neither important players nor even particularly noticed until the late sixties, when people with big money started buying supervisorial candidates. That started, it seems, with Ron Caspers’ ruthless campaign for Alton Allen’s board seat in 1969 (he won it in 1970). According to former OC GOP Central Committee Chair Tom Rogers (see), “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.” Elsewhere, Rogers notes that many Orange Countians “blame [Caspers] for the descent of Orange County into the world of political intrigue, campaign finance abuses and influence peddling.”
     And, right at the start, Fuentes was there.
     Caspers was a Republican but the rest of corrupt 70s kingpin Louis Cella’s stable of Supes were Democrats, and so the patronage wasn’t really about politics; mostly, it was about money—i.e., how to get lots of it.
     Tom Fuentes would have been twenty years old at the time of this patronage genesis or pre-genesis. From what I’ve read, Fuentes was up to his eyeballs in that nasty campaign of 1969-1970, and, upon its success, he was showered with Caspersian goodies: he received retroactive support for his education; he became Caspers’ executive aide; and he even got a job with Caspers’ S&L in Anaheim.
     It seems clear that Caspers was not merely ruthless; he was dirty. It is likely that he was spared from lasting ignominy by his own death, via the peculiar “Shooting Star” disaster in 1974. The criminal prosecutions that brought down the Cella-O’Neill political machine of which Caspers was a part started a year or two later. The county settled a lawsuit that charged Caspers and (“Shooting Star” owner and Cella’s chief strategist) Fred Harber with a shakedown—quietly, in the late 70s.

     FRANK MICHELENA. But let’s go back to those early years, starting in 1969. According to Tom Rogers, “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.”
I couldn't find a pic of
Frank M. This'll have to do
     I haven’t been able to find out much about Michelena, Fuentes’ coworker on Team Caspers. I know this: he was born in 1930 and lived in Costa Mesa (it appears that he died in 2005). He seems to have started his political career in his thirties, as an assistant to OC Supervisor Bill Phillips (1957-1973). Later, he was a campaign advisor to the Cella-sponsored OC Supervisor, Ralph Clark, and has been associated with campaigns that, early on, used outrageous tabloid-style hit pieces against opponents.
     By the 80s, he was known in Orange County as a high-powered lobbyist. According to a 1990 Times article, “Frank G. Michelena is the guy you go to see when you want something from Orange County government.”
     Writes Rogers (in 2000), “Frank Michelena’s activities have been so pervasive over the years that no brief history [of OC] could possibly list their scope and impact on Orange County and the establishment political structure.”
     Elsewhere, Rogers adds: “After striking out on his own [in the 70s] [Michelena] seemed always in the shadows of county political controversies….”

Lyle Overby
     LYLE OVERBY. Another name that pops up in the Cella saga is that of OC lobbyist Lyle Overby, with whom I briefly corresponded. (He wrote to tell me that he was on the “Shooting Star” during its fateful trip, but he disembarked at Cabo before the more hazardous portion of the trip; see this and this.). By the early 70s, Overby was an 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.)
     Back to Overby: during the era of the “Dick and Doc Show”—i.e., the shadow government organized by Dr. Louis Cella and land baron Dick O’Neill—the two actually gave over a million dollars to various political candidates in one year, 1974. Dr. Cella was diverting money from medical companies to candidates. Beyond that, Cella provided candidates with printing, postage, and other services.
     Cella’s Mission Hospital hired workers whose work was entirely political. (Arlene Hoffman, who was mysteriously murdered—with a crossbow!—in the 90s, was among these workers.) The place had a printing press that churned out campaign literature and mailers. Some curious persons received refunds from the hospital for postal costs, including Bill Butcher of the consulting firm Butcher-Forde. (Forde had been closely associated with Caspers and his campaigns.) Another was—you guessed it!—Lyle Overby, who received $4,600 in postage funds from the hospital. (Source: Rogers.)
Bill Butcher, c. 1982
     One older reporter I spoke with advised me not to trust Overby. Back in ’74, he said, Overby was an aide, like Fuentes, and seemed to be perfect for the “bagman” role. (You'll recall that Nathan Rosenberg once referred to Fuentes as "Caspers' bagman.") After the “Shooting Star” disaster in 1974, Overby was hired by O’Neill’s company and, still later, he became a major “lobbyist” in Orange County.
     Back in 2000, the OC Weekly declared Overby to be one of OC’s top 31 “Scariest” people:
#16. [Lyle Overby is] Orange County's überlobbyist and the former aide to two county supervisors—both later convicted of corruption. He's close to former county Supervisor Don Roth—also convicted—and close to onetime county Treasurer Bob Citron—jailed after the 1994 bankruptcy. His name appears repeatedly in just about every county supervisor's campaign-finance statement. He lobbied for Newport Beach City Council (until recently), the Irvine Co. and Lockheed Martin. He's now the boss of American Taxi, for whom he delivered in March an exclusive contract for taxi service at John Wayne Airport—despite the fact that (a) his company was barely six months old and the contract required at least five years' experience; and (b) his company was bleeding money through every fiscal orifice, clocking an operating loss of more than $130,000 when airport officials gave him the contract. [Note: as I understand it, Louis Cella also assisted Bob Citron in his bid for OC Treasurer.]
     In the early 90s, Supervisor Don Roth was investigated by the DA for various abuses, including the receiving of gifts. Among the people who gave Roth questionable gifts were Lyle Overby and Frank Michelena. (Source: Rogers.)
     Overby and Michelena were involved in setting up an expensive fundraiser for their pal Roth when he resigned and entered a guilty plea to seven charges in 1993. (Rogers.)

* * * * *
Tom Fuentes, c. 1973
     Big Picture-wise, here’s what’s becoming clearer to me.
  • CASPERS AND THE PATRONAGE SYSTEM. Things changed in Orange County politics/governance, starting with the arrival on the scene of banker and businessman Ron Caspers in 1969-1970. Caspers, who was supported by the ambitious team of Louis Cella, Richard O’Neill, and Fred Harber (aka the “Coalition”), established a patronage system, focusing on developers. This scheme survived Caspers and Harber’s death and ultimately led to a disastrous and ongoing over-development of Orange County, especially in the south. The manner and degree to which OC politicians are routinely "influenced" is not yet widely appreciated by the public. 
  • CASHING IN. Many of the figures, some minor, of the early days of this saga (Fuentes, Michelena, Overby, et al.) have become rich and powerful in subsequent decades.
  • CASPERS & MODERN CAMPAIGNS. Caspers set a new standard by employing, not merely stunningly unscrupulous campaign tactics (some of these, of course, were already familiar), but also advanced, computerized, data-driven campaign approaches associated with the consulting firm Butcher-Forde. These approaches have come to be considered essential.
  • THEY MUST HAVE KNOWN. Caspers and his pals were dirty, and, as reporters have suggested to me, though some people present for the hinky financial and political dealings of Caspers-Harber (et al.) may not have actually directly participated in criminal schemes and activities, they were certainly at least aware of them. This group would include such minor players as, say, supervisorial aides of the principles.
* * * * *
Some further thoughts:

  • I find it odd that Tom Fuentes, a man known for his intolerance of Republicans who are not sufficiently “conservative” (RINOs, they're called), and who has long been a noisy champion of party discipline and unity ("thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican"), got his start, and learned his chops, from a man like Ron Caspers, a “Rockefeller Republican” (as one reporter I spoke with labeled him) who seemed to care much more about making money than about pursuing an ideological agenda or remaining true to his party (or to its incumbents).
  • A find it less odd that Mr. Fuentes, with all his airs and gestures of piety and rectitude, got his start with a politician who is memorable (at least to me) for being unscrupulous, unprincipled, and just plain dirty.
  • As near as I can tell, a year or so after the “Shooting Star” disaster (and after an aborted training for the priesthood), Fuentes commenced his career as a “consultant”—a job that seemed to involve, among other things, his “influencing” government officials on behalf of private firms. How curious that he pursued such work in an era known for the rise of patronage and influence peddling most foul—an era initiated by his first boss and the man he reportedly credits for his political rearing.
     It's a curious world, is it not?


Anonymous said...

Wonder how much our insurance at SOCCCD will go up with Tom, "fiscal conservative", getting his medical drips in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not attending meetings, doing the work, or, simply, resigning to "save taxpayer money"? What's changed or not about greed in OC?

Anonymous said...

You need to do a one page handout with every corrupt politician with ties to Fuentes.

Anonymous said...

Nixon wasn't a true Republican, he was a liberal opportunist RINO. For better clarification please refer to his dealings with Kissinger and the communists, and how he kept an enimes list and used the IRS to persue them. Very Obamaesque stuff.

Roy Bauer said...

6:34, whether or not Nixon was a "true Republican" (whatever that's supposed to mean), Fuentes worships the guy. Fuentes even tried to get the "Great Park" named after Nixon. Fuentes even taught himself to adopt Nixon's odd cadences as a speaker, a point many observers have made over the years. Fuentes cherishes a letter of appreciation he once received from Tricky Dick. He's got it on his wall somewhere.

Anonymous said...

6:34, If Nixon wasn't a true Republican, why did Orange County vote for him (for President) twice? The second time came after most of the dastardly deeds you are referring to had been committed. You obviously don't know your history.

Anonymous said...

9:11, given that Fuentes was GOP chair for twenty years, that handout would have so many lines going out from Fuentes, it look like a porcupine.

Anonymous said...

"Obamaesque," 6:34? Functioning without a cerebral cortex today, are we?

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