Orange County incomporuption: toward a "big picture"
|A young Tom Fuentes and his hero, Richard Nixon, San Clemente|
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.
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|Ron Caspers (1931-1974)|
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
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….”
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|
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.)
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|Tom Fuentes, c. 1973|
- 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?