Thursday, July 5, 2012

When solicitations are threats (and, as always, Tom Fuentes was there)

     An Orange County developer, actively seeking County Planning commission approval of a rezoning project, claims he was once approached following a public hearing by an appointed county official.
     The official, who has since resigned his position, suggested that one developer might want to buy two tickets to a high-priced political dinner for a local officeholer.
     “I told him to go to hell and walked away,” the developer said in a recent interview. “The next week, our deal was turned down by the commission.
     “I could never prove that the two things were related but there was sure a damn strong inference that they were.”
—LA Times, 1974

Dorothy Fortune
     THE SETTING: OLD GUARD SANS UNIONBy some time in 1998,* control over the union was back in the hands of decent faculty, but the new leadership soon found union coffers to be empty. Attempts at locating and acquiring Old Guard financial records were brazenly thwarted. As I recall (and here my memory is hazy), we never really got a clear accounting of where all the money went and who exactly controlled it. (I’ve been told by union insiders that CTA/CCA failed to aggressively assess Old Guard leadership because Sherry Miller-White, the union front-person, was African-American.)
     Though the Old Guard no longer controlled the union, it wasn’t quite dead. During the election of 1998, they managed to help elect two new right-wingers: Don Wagner and Nancy Padberg. (The "board majority" grew to five.)
     By the election of 2000, these rogue unionists were still somewhat organized. One wonders if the resourceful Mr. Tom Fuentes—for he had just arrived on the scenedid not take steps to enhance their viability. They had money—one wonders where it came from—and they backed the “slate” of Don Davis (against Lang), Dorothy Fortune (against William Shane), Tom Fuentes (against Bob Loeffler), and John Williams (against Bill Hochmuth). 
     Lang/Shane/Loeffler/Hochmuth billed themselves as the “Clean Slate.”
     Of the Clean Slate, only Lang prevailed. Unsurprisingly, all of the winners of the 2000 election, Lang included, went into it with the powerful “incumbent” advantage.
     Fuentes, the long-time chairman of the Orange County GOP, had been appointed to the board only four months earlier (in July) when the Holocaust-denying trustee Steve Frogue announced his intention of resigning.
     At the time, observers smelled a rat. They smelled accurately.

* * *
     KOPFSTEIN'S CURIOUS LETTER. I’ve come across an old LA Times article (“South O.C. Seats Have 10 Trading Hostilities,” October 31, 2000) from just before the election of 2000. It was written by our old pal Jeff Gottlieb, who has since made a name for himself (Pulitzer!) covering such stories as the Bell scandal
     Jeff reported:
Jeff Gottlieb
     …[T]here have been nonstop battles between the administration and the faculty, with disputes often ending up in court and the district typically being ordered to back off and pay its opponents' legal fees.
     This history sets the stage for the current contentious campaign.
     For example, four single-page anonymous fliers are circulating, filled with misinformation and inflammatory language that portray the Clean candidates as supporting domestic-partner benefits and a gay and lesbian studies program.
     These have been sent out with no return address, stuffed in mailboxes and even faxed to some people. It is difficult to tell how widely they have been distributed.
     The candidates named in the mailers said the subject is not even an issue in the campaign. Board President Padberg, who is part of the board majority, agreed. "I have no knowledge this [domestic partners] is going to be coming to the board," she said, adding it won't be up for discussion for at least two years, when a new contract is negotiated with teachers.
. . .
     Another flier, from a group identifying itself as "Conservative Americans for College Excellence," was mailed to residents of Laguna Woods. The flier endorses "true conservative American candidates" Davis, Williams, Fortune and Fuentes. "Don't let your education tax dollars be diverted from [classes for seniors] to pay for Same-Sex Domestic Partner Benefits," the flier states.
     This is not the first time that fliers with references to gay issues have become part of a campaign in the college district.
     In 1996, the teachers' union spent nearly $40,000 on a slick campaign piece that attacked first-time candidate Lang and his slate of candidates for using "your education tax dollars to pay for seminars and conferences to educate participants about the Gay & Lesbian Lifestyle." A more liberal leadership took over the union in 1998, and the organization's endorsements changed accordingly.
     Hostility between conservatives and liberals within the union continues.
     After the change in leadership, the California Teachers Assn. sent a team to investigate a number of allegations, including that money raised by the union to support political candidates had been mismanaged.
     The leader of the audit team, David Lebow, said the continuing probe centers on what happened to money collected for the union's political action committee at the rate of $15,000 to $30,000 a year. When the union leadership changed, the departing officers said there was no money left in the account and closed it down. Most of the former union presidents who controlled the fund have refused to cooperate or to turn over records, Lebow said, adding that the issue may be taken to court.
     One former union president, Robert Kopfstein, did provide investigators with the information he had available, Lebow said.
     Kopfstein, a professor at Saddleback, has since become treasurer of the South Orange County Taxpayers for Quality Education, and is backing incumbent trustees Fortune, Fuentes and Williams.
     What comes next really caught my eye:
Mr. Kopfstein
     On invitations for a Sept. 29 fund-raiser, Kopfstein added a handwritten note to 20 vendors who had done business with the district. "We hope that you can help support the campaigns of these incumbent trustees who, in the past, have shown support for your business," he wrote.
     District Chancellor Cedric Sampson said one vendor complained the note was inappropriate, but Sampson said he [did] not think there was anything illegal about it.
     Kopfstein defended the note. "What I'm saying here is this is someone with a connection with Saddleback College and they should be concerned about the trustees who are elected," he said. "If they're doing business, there's a vested interest in the school."
     Presumably, the vendor judged the solicitation to be inappropriate because it could easily be viewed as a threat: pay up or we’ll give the contract to somebody else.
     Such veiled threats are familiar in politics—where the citizenry are clueless and the regulations are lax. Like in OC.

* * *
     1974: WORRIES ABOUT SPECIAL INTERESTSBack in 1974, just months before the general election (in Orange County), the LA Times’ Don Smith wrote a lengthy piece about fund raising (“Fund Raising: A Basic Necessity of Political Life,” Aug 11, 1974) and the unseemly actions that campaign finance pressures yielded. It started with the story that heads this post: an OC developer tells of being approached by a county official who suggested the developer might want to buy tickets for a certain office holder's political fund-raiser. The developer refused.  The next week the developer's plan was rejected by the county.
     Smith marveled at the amounts that some incumbent candidates for non-partisan offices had collected for the recent June primary. For instance, incumbent supervisor Caspers had collected $196,264—for a job that made only $15K a year.
     Smith quotes a visitor from Chicago, a town notorious for corruption:
     “In Chicago,” she explained, “you know who you have to pay and how much to get something done. Here, there is no price tag. They hit you for anything they can get.”
     One campaign contributor whom Smith interviewed said,
     “You give,” he snorted, “because you know there is a contract coming up. If you don’t, you might not be considered. We don’t want all of it but we do expect to get our fair share. Contributions are one way to make sure the guy remembers your name.”
     At the time, Tom Fuentes was an aide to Ron Caspers, who had just disappeared in a boating incident off the coast of Baja.
     Fuentes explained Team Caspers' reliance on $1,000-a-plate or $500-a-plate testimonial dinners:
     “We used some very special invitations for those,” Fuentes explained. “One time, we sent a dozen roses to each person on the list with the invitation included in the gift card. Another time, we used a special parchment invitation with a red ribbon around it.”
     The key attraction for such events is a gourmet meal in a high-quality restaurant.
     For example, Caspers’ last such affair, which drew 21 guests, was held in the Westgate Plaza Hotel in San Diego. Guests were flown there on a chartered jet from Orange County.
     Smith spoke with one contributor who was asked to sell ten tickets for an expensive affair. By that time, everyone had already written a check or two, and so he only sold a few. He purchased the rest out of his own pocket:
     Asked what would have happened if he had simply returned [the tickets] unsold, he simply shrugged.
     “Probably nothing,” he replied. “We had contributed to all the other supervisors also, so one vote might not have hurt us. On the other hand, if the guy got mad at us, he could have blocked us from getting a contract in this district. So I ate the $500 and let it go.”
     Once again, our old friend Frank Michelena, a powerful OC lobbyist, popped up. According to Smith, he donated $1,000 to each of the incumbent supervisors (on behalf of a client). And he personally “tossed in a total of $7,000 to Caspers’ campaign and another $1,000 to Supervisor Ralph Clark.” (Caspers and Clark, of course, were in Richard O’Neill and Louis Cella’s stable.)
     Why did he do that?
     “In my business, it means a lot—as well as a lot of money for some of my clients—to be able to pick up the phone and get right through. ¶ “Someone who isn’t so well-known will also get through but it may take a little time to do it. With the costs involved in developing and building today, that quick access can save a lot of money for my clients.”
     Evidently, the OC Grand Jury was concerned about then-current campaign practices:
     In its farewell report, the jury contended that potential contributors are often harassed and claimed that at least one large contributor actually leaves the county before an election to avoid solicitations.
     The report called on county officials to stop soliciting funds from firms doing business with the county….
     Those solicitations, of course, could be viewed as veiled threats. No doubt, often, that’s just what they were.

* * *
     BENTS' ALLEGATIONS OF "STRONG-ARMING." Less than three months before the above article, Smith reported a curious press conference held by one of Supervisor Ron Caspers’ Republican challengers for the upcoming primary (“Fund-Raising Tactics by Caspers Criticized,” May 31, 1974):
     …[S]upervisorial candidate Marcia Bents charged Thursday that Supervisor Ronald Caspers has “strong-armed” firms into contributing to his campaign.
     Mrs. Bents, referring to Caspers’ latest financial report showing more than $222,000 in contributions, said the firms made contributions “because they were afraid not to give.” These firms are doing business with the county or seeking county permits, she said.
     Naturally, Team Caspers was there to rebut Bents’ charges. As usual, Team Caspers meant, not Caspers himself, but Tom Fuentes. (As we’ve seen, Tom seemed to be much more than an executive aide.) According to Smith, Fuentes asserted that Bents’ charges had “no element of truth.”
     “They are only an indication of her own floundering campaign,” Fuentes said, “and are unsupported by facts. [Evidently, he did not provide any facts.] The people and firms who contribute to Ron do so because they support what he is doing.”
     At a courthouse press-room conference, Mrs. Bents handed newsmen a list of 26 firms and individuals who have donated or pledged $1,000 or more to Caspers’ campaign. All of these donors are involved in subdivisions, zone changes, variance use permits, tracts, special projects or contracts with the county.
     “…some of these firms have expressed to me, privately, that they felt they were being forced into making substantial contributions to Caspers’ campaign.”
     Bents also presented a written signed statement by former Caspers aide H. Ronald Jones in which the latter states that “he had worked on county time to address and stuff envelopes for a Caspers’ testimonial dinner….”
     Further, “Jones charged that he had also used county time and a county car to drive to Los Angeles County to pick up materials for Fuentes’ campaign for the County Republican Central Committee.”
     –Evidently, the latter is contrary to county policy.

* * *
     TOM FUENTES, BULLYAs Orange County GOP chairman, Fuentes had become notorious for strongly discouraging challenges to Republican incumbents, no matter how odious. Some of these people reported that Fuentes had actually threatened them:
     "He said my business would be ruined, and that my husband's business would be ruined," said [former Superior Court Judge Judith] Ryan, a challenger to U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan for his seat in 1992. "I was taken aback." (Guiding With an Iron Hand, Times, July 11, 1996)
     The more you look at it the more the fabric that is Orange County Republican politics—where it concerns the late Tom Fuentes—is surprisingly homogeneous.

~ ~ ~
     *BACKGROUND: During the SOCCCD trustees campaign of 1996, a group of phenomenally unprincipled and secretive faculty—I dubbed them the "Old Guard"—controlled the faculty union and its substantial PAC money. These union leaders (Sherry Miller-WhiteSharon MacMillan, and the guys for whom they fronted: Mike RunyanTom Carroll, et al.) supported the trustee candidacies of “fiscal conservatives” John WilliamsSteven FrogueDorothy Fortune, and Don Davis. They printed and mailed a homophobic and stunningly deceptive flier to persuade local Republicans to defeat the slate of benign non-union (P.I.E.) candidates, including Dave Lang. (Confused? Lang “switched sides” in about 2005.)
     The Old Guard’s crew of Neanderthals (except for Davis) prevailed, and thus it was that, starting in December of 1996, the district was thrust into the “board majority” era, a period of incompetence, decline, venality, and embarrassment.
     Through the majority’s first years, union leadership steadfastly supported “their” board members, even as the latter brought the district to near fiscal disaster (we were placed on the "watch" list), endless accreditation difficulties, 1st Amendment lawsuits, and very unflattering news stories.
     (Motive? The Old Guard trustees wanted help paying for their campaigns, and, as near as anyone could tell, the Old Guard had struck a “quid pro quo” deal with these trustees to secure faculty contracts that benefited some at the expense of others.)
     Gradually (by 1998), horrified rank and file faculty took back control of their union, despite the hapless CTA/CCA.


Anonymous said...

Wow, talk about putting the same information in a blender and presenting it all again. Fiscal disaster? I guess that's why we now have a surplus of a couple hundred million....

Roy Bauer said...

This post concerns the phenomenon of arguably threatening solicitations for money, not the phenomenon of "fiscal disasters." The district was placed on the state chancellor's office "fiscal watch list" in about 1997, which was fifteen years ago. At the time, our reserve was deficient. That it is no longer deficient is hardly relevant. The board has changed much since 1997.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think it is relevant. Says alot about our boards. Hey you keep bringing it up...

Anonymous said...

Have a point, you little asswipe....

Anonymous said...

Yes, the point is that it was that so called "terrible board majority" that kept our district's fiscal house in order following your preferred previous board of libs who spent like seniors in Las Vegas., dickweed!

Roy Bauer said...

2:34's reference to "previous board of libs" is perplexing. There have only been Republicans on the board since 1996, and, before that, the only Democrat was consistently voted down by Williams, Frogue, and Lorch. We were placed on the fiscal watch list in 1997, when Williams, a Republican, was board president. The primary reason for our fiscal health in the last decade has been our being a basic aid district where property tax revenues have been high.

Anonymous said...

Well, Roy, you've gone and ruined the little fellow's day by interposing facts, thereby spoiling his right wing talking points.

Now he'll have to listen to some more talk radio to find out what to say next.

Anonymous said...

7:59, thank you for being here!--your excellent observations made me laugh. (And I know it's you, Jan.) :)


Anonymous said...

We've been a basic aid district all along; we've always had high revenues. So what changed this last decade where we were able to achieve such a large surplus?

Roy Bauer said...

Not that it matters, since the board has been dominated by Republicans going back at least to 1992, but, no, I don't believe that we've been a "basic aid"district continuously in the last twenty years.

Shripathi Kamath said...

Please post this on the Mission Viejo Patch

Roy Bauer said...

I appreciate the endorsement, but I do think that this kind of piece is much too demanding for the Patch. My piece does not actually state its implied thesis--that Fuentes started his career playing hardball and kept the brass knucks in his pocket to the bitter end.


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