By Jennifer Muir
Has the Orange County Fair Board gone too far in its efforts to preserve the Orange County Fairgrounds?
Orange County’s head attorney believes it has. In an Oct. 30 letter to the state attorney general asking for an investigation into possible illegal activity, county counsel Nicholas Chrisos raises questions about whether the fair board illegally used public money to pay for lobbyists charged with influencing the state’s sale of the fair grounds.
Board members also have formed a nonprofit foundation that could buy and operate the fairgrounds, and Chrisos says the public contracts were aimed at ensuring their foundation would be qualified to bid — essentially using public money for personal gain. Here’s how he figures:
“If past practice holds, members of the Foundation Board would enjoy some (even if minimal) perquisites, such as free tickets to the fair, parking passes,” the letter says. “Those are financial interests.”
Incidentally, the attorney general’s office serves as the fair board’s legal counsel and wrote in a Nov. 13 letter that because of that role, it would be “inappropriate” to investigate. Gary Schons, a senior assistant attorney general, wrote that the district attorney is responsible for investigating crimes within the county.
“We just received the letter from the Attorney General’s Office yesterday and have not filed anything with the District Attorney’s Office at this time,” county spokeswoman Brooke De Baca said.
Members of the fair board formed the nonprofit Orange County Fair and Event Center Foundation July 21 to potentially purchase and preserve the 150-acre fairgrounds. Using private money, the foundation hired former state Sen. Dick Ackerman and the lawfirm of Nossaman, Guthner, Knox and Eliot (now just Nossaman LLP) to create an early draft of the foundation’s organization and form the articles of incorporation.
The county’s complaint centers around a action the fair board took eight days later, on July 29, approving a contract with Ackerman and the same law firm. The contract, according to the county letter, was “designed to lobby the governor’s office in formulating the terms of the RFP to be issued by the state.”
Members of the fair board who also were on the foundation could directly benefit from the contract, which makes it illegal and ineligible for public funds, Chrisos wrote. OC Weekly first reported about the letter online Monday evening.
(The Watchdog has requested the actual contracts, but has not heard back yet from the fair board. Members of the fair board could not immediately be reached for comment. We’ll update as soon as we hear from them.)
The letter also says that the public wasn’t adequately noticed that the board was considering the consulting agreements — a violation of open meeting laws.
It’s not the first time the fair board has been dinged for meeting illegally.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas last year accused the Orange County Fair Board of violating state’s Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act when boardmembers changed their policy for giving themselves free concert tickets without allowing public comment.