Monday, June 18, 2012

Harber and Caspers attempt to bribe a developer, but then they die instead

Tom Fuentes, 1974
     It’s pretty clear, I think, that Supervisor Ron Caspers was seriously hinky, and his teeming corruptitude was such that it is hard to imagine his close associate and assistant, Tom Fuentes, not participating in it—or at least being aware of it.
     Bear in mind that young Tom was the chief organizing entity of Caspers’ operation. He handled routine complaints, scheduled events, made phone calls, etc.for his boss, all day long, every day.

     FRED HARBER WAS THE BOMB. My most recent research (mostly old LA Times articles) has led me to conclude that Fred Harber, Caspers’ close associate, was much more than might be supposed based on his job descriptions. My reasons will become clear as we proceed. I’ll just say for now that Harber was perhaps the third most important member of what Supervisor Robert Battin called the “Coalition”—the money-distributing venture headed by “Dick and Doc,” i.e., R.J. O’Neill and Louis Cella. As you know, Orange County DA, Cecil Hicks, regarded the “Coalition” as OC’s “shadow government.” Near as I can tell, that’s just what it was, for it “owned” the Board of Supes.
Buena Park pols, 1958
Fred Harber in the middle
     For the core of the Coalition, I think, at least at first, the “Dick and Doc Show” was essentially an effort to give muscle to the Democratic Party in traditionally conservative OC. But it clearly morphed into something less political, more self-aggrandizing and profitable. It reached out to some Republicans, such as Caspers (1970) and Laurence Schmit (1975). Starting with Caspers, it became more about greed. And it seems likely that, for Harber and Cella, though perhaps not for O’Neill, laws and ethics were just things to get around somehow.
     As we’ll see, some of the “inside baseball” about the Supes back in the years 1969-1974 point to Harber’s alarming prominence, despite his having no elected office or appointment. He had served as Mayor of Cypress (among other offices), but, in 1969, he was an “assistant” to Supervisor Battin. He was a curiously highly-regarded assistant among the corps of helpers surrounding the Supervisors.
Ron Caspers
     After Harber dumped that gig, Battin was at one point compelled to complain aloud that, no, he wasn’t Fred Harber’s puppet!
     It was, of course, Harber’s boat that was lost off the coast of Baja California in June of 1974, leaving not a trace of the ten men aboard, including Caspers and Harber.
* * *
     HERE COMES MR. JORDAN. I’ve found two newspaper articles that tell the story of the alleged “shakedown” scheme that, according to developer Richard Jordan, Harber and Caspers approached him with:
OC Register
OC Developer Alleges Political Bribe Demand
May 23, 1978
By Joe Cordero & Charley Roberts 
LA Times,
Caspers, Harber accused of bribe try by developer
May 24, 1978
By Steve Emmons
     As you can see, the Reg scooped the Times—thanks to a timely request for a pubic record. Nevertheless, I’ll start by outlining the contents of the Times’ piece:
Young Tom Fuentes
     Had Caspers and Harber not died in 1974, they might “have sailed home to a bribery indictment.” Or so it is alleged in a sworn 1975 depo by developer Richard Jordan.
     The Reg managed to get that depo.
     In the depo, Jordan explains that he had acquired a 46-acre piece of land in El Toro from a man who had already secured the necessary county permits and OKs for a mobile home park. Jordan even got assurances from county people that everything was set to go, but then, suddenly, in early ’74, he learned that Supervisor Caspers preferred that the land be used for condos.
     So Jordan revised his plans and pursued the condo project, but that soon got mired in complications and red tape. So he returned to plan A: the mobile home park.
     Pretty soon, county inspectors were nitpicking the project to death, so he contacted supervisor Ron Caspers’ office. (Caspers’ area included El Toro.) He figured he’d just deal with Tom Fuentes, Caspers’ assistant. He asked Fuentes to find out just who, down at the county, was concerned about his project and why. Fuentes called back a month later, saying that “we were going to have some problems,” but he couldn’t say more over the phone. Jordan hurried to Fuentes’ office, whereupon Fuentes explained that the Planning Commission’s Shirley Grindle was asking lots of questions about the project. Jordan went back to his plans, looking for a problem, but he could find none. He called Fuentes back.
     Fuentes next arranged for Jordan to meet with Bart Spendlove, Caspers’ planning commissioner. Two days later, at the project site, Spendlove told Jordan that everybody opposed the mobile home park, but “as far as I’m concerned, you have a permit and you have started on it. I think you should be able to continue with it.” Jordan agreed to plant a row of trees to obscure the park and that seemed to make Spendlove happy.
From “Spendlove, Wife, 4 Children Killed in
Utah Plane Crash,” LA Times, Sep. 9, 1975

     (Spendlove, says the Times, died in a plane crash 18 months later. How come so many people die violent deaths in this yarn?)
     A few days later, Caspers called Jordan to tell him that Spendlove’s approach wouldn’t cut it. But Caspers had a plan. He wouldn’t elaborate over the phone but said Jordan should meet a man who could solve the problem. That man was Fred Harber.
     Casper suggested that he, Jordan, and Harber spend some time down in Baja on Harber’s boat. They could get to know each other, have fun, become pals.
     Jordan said he’d get back to him. He looked into Harber’s history and found that Harber had once been involved in a bribery scandal—in Cypress.
Near La Paz
     Years earlier, when Harber was the city manager of Cypress, in exchange for immunity, he agreed to testify about a scheme in which a developer paid him and a member of the City Council $2,000 a month. These facts never came to light because the City Councilman—Mr. Job Denni—perished in a plane crash in 1966, necessitating abandonment of the case.
     So Jordan phoned Casper, asking why Harber was so dang influential. Well, owing to his help with financing their campaigns, Harber had clout with supervisors Clark and Battin. [Supervisors Clark, Battin, and Caspers were, of course, in “Dick and Doc’s” stable of politicians.]
     In April of ’74, Jordan joined Casper and his pals in a drive to LAX; from there the group flew down to Mexico (La Paz) and Harber’s boat, the “Shooting Star.” Harber motored the yacht to an island. Caspers took Jordan and the two took a rubber boat to fish somewhere, whereupon Caspers explained that Harber has sway with Grindle’s boss, supervisor Clark. 
The Shooting Star
     The following Monday, back in the OC, the county ordered a halt to Jordan’s project, evidently because Grindle had asked an official to look it over. That process yielded the voiding of Jordan’s permit.
     Jordan figured he’d next be hit up for a bribe. So (according to Jordan, according to the Times) Jordan’s lawyer contacted someone at the DA’s office, explaining the situation, but without naming names. Jordan then tried to set up another meeting with Harber.
     On the Mexico trip, Harber had invited Jordan to visit his office—but alone. So Jordan set up an appointment. When the two got together, Jordan asked Harber how long it would take to fix the problem with his project. “Not long.” Harber then explained that he wanted $10,000 up front plus $2,000 per month. Jordan asked how long the $2k thing would be necessary. The answer: “How long do you plan to develop in Orange County?”
     [DIGRESSION: MCWHINNEY THE POOAgain, the $2k per month scheme had been employed by Harber before when he was City Manager of Cypress (according to the Times article).
     But there’s another relevant case. In 1972 (two years before this Jordan stuff), a high-profile trial of the mayor of Westminster—Derek McWhinney(see)—also involved bribery and the figure $10,000—the amount demanded of a farmer who sought to lease city land (now part of Mile Square Park). In the course of the trial, both Fred Harber and Tom Fuentes were mentioned—Harber, because he was a source of information and recommendations (to supervisors) that were directly related to the case and because, according to the farmer, McWhinney had told him that six people, including he and Fred Harber, “run” Orange County. Fuentes was mentioned because, at one point, he, acting on behalf of his boss Caspers, informed the county of a complication with regard to the land—conceivably in accordance with one of McWhinney’s shakedown schemes. (My sources: LA Times, August 4, 1972; September 22, 1972; May 30, 1973; July 1, 1973.)] 
Lou Cella
     Jordan was trying to set up yet another meeting with Harber—this time with the DA office’s involvement—but then that fateful trip aboard the Shooting Star occurred—and Harber and Caspers (and eight others) were dead. Jordan had been invited on that trip, but he declined because there was no way of getting the DA office involved in anything happening way down south in Mexico and because he judged the Shooting Star to be less-than-seaworthy.
     (The top men at the DA's office later claimed that they hadn’t heard about any of this—that perhaps Jordan and his lawyer had communicated informally with a deputy DA.)
     After the mysterious Shooting Star disaster (none of the bodies was ever found; see DtB’s extensive scribblings about the tragedy), the county was about to shut down Jordan’s project on technical grounds (not enough work done). By the time the permit was squared away, costs were way up, and the project folded. It was a disaster for Jordan and his company.
     So he sued the county, which, a month prior to the article, had agreed to pay him $700,000 in a settlement deal. [End of précis.]
On that fateful trip 
(the one Jordan missed)
     The Register’s piece doesn’t add much to the yarn. There’s Harber’s elaboration concerning what would be done with the bribe money: “Harber said that he would keep part of the money, and the balance would go to ‘make large loans to people running for political office,’ according to Jordan’s deposition.”
     There also seems to be a disagreement between the Reg and the Times about whether Caspers’ gang (with Jordan) flew or cruised down to La Paz. (They agree that they flew back.)
     And there’s this. According to the Reg,
     Jordan’s deposition describes how [after the trip to La Paz] he and his attorney ... planned to make the payoff with marked money with the cooperation of the district attorney’s office.
     “After we’ve cleared it with District Attorney Cecil Hicks…that we’ll arrange for me to go back to Fred Harber and pay him the money, in marked bills. The exact details of the plan were not worked out at this time, but were, I think, that the District Attorney’s office was going to be involved in how we would work it out,” Jordan said.
     SO. Well, judge for yourself. How believable is Jordan’s story?
     That the county paid Jordan $700,000 in a settlement—one that barred the principles from discussing the case (only the Reg’s request for the documents brought Jordan’s depo to light)—might tell us something.
     And what about those other bribery cases?
     Admittedly, the “McWhinney” case is murky with regard to Harber (or Caspers) involvement, if any, in the bribe. (McWhinney was convicted.) So maybe we’ll turn to that next. 
     Also: I’ve gotta tell you about the time Supervisor Battin protested too much
     One more thing.
     I don’t know if this has anything at all to do with the Jordan business, but, according to a 1976 article by journalists Dan Walters and Al Downer, in 1971, Cella, O’Neill, and Harber joined a partnership that bought some El Toro land. Then, in 1971, the OC Board of Supes—which, of course, included Ron Caspers (and Harber/Cella beneficiaries Bob Battin and Ralph Clark)—made a decision that yielded C, O and H a huge profit:

Unscrambling Dick and Doc’s financial and political empire
California Journal, January, 1976
…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.... 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….
     Like I said: dirty.
     —Don’t know what to make of that Parvin connection. Sheesh.

     [Note to self: McWhinney contributed to Ronald Caspers' campaign in 1970. See Times, 7/8/70.]


Sherry said...

Damn dirty politicians. My Dad & Uncles appear to have died over greed, lies & politics...wait aren't those 3 things one & the same in most cases? It makes me sick, just sick.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it the other way around, private individuals bribing public officials? You make a weak argument and no point.

Anonymous said...

What on earth is your point, 7:21?Apparently you've never heard of Iran-Contra, e.g.

The return of the curious "Shooting Star" saga

     Back in 2012, I wrote a series of posts about the mysterious sinking, in 1974, of the yacht "Shooting Star," which took th...