By NORBERTO SANTANA JR. | Voice Of OC
The Orange County Fair board Thursday will finalize its review of the failed effort three years ago by a group of Republican members to privatize the iconic property in Costa Mesa.
The attempted sale was an ugly affair, triggering a series of bids, protests, petitions, hearings and lawsuits with the fight lasting into the waning hours of the Schwarzenegger administration.
Gov. Jerry Brown canceled the sale when he took office in 2011, and since then his fair board appointees have worked with a group of activists in an attempt to unravel the scheme to sell the 162-acre property, which happened largely in secret.
Items up for consideration Thursday include whether to authorize a series of forensic audits into whether public funds were used to set up the nonprofit foundation that spearheaded the privatization effort and how much public funds were used to lobby for the sale.
The board’s Fair Sale Review Committee issued a scathing report last month and presented it publicly to board members.
Led by a former police chief, the panel concluded that Republican board members used pavement contracts with LSA & Associates at the fairground to “launder” hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to lobbyists and attorneys to move the privatization plan through the halls of Sacramento.
The keys to understanding the Republican fair board privatization plan were speed and political connections.
Once board members determined that Gov. Schwarzenegger would react favorably to their plan of having a nonprofit foundation buy the fairground, they quickly retained former state Sen. Dick Ackerman to work Sacramento, despite his still being subject to the state’s year-long ban of former legislators lobbying.
According to Ackerman’s own billing records and contracts, he called several state legislators, seemingly to violate the lobbying ban while under contract to the fair board to act as a liaison on sale-related issues.
Fair board members also retained Platinum Advisors, lobbyists for Orange County government, to lobby the sale. They also hired appraisers to evaluate the property.
Members executed those contracts without notice to the public or even some of the board members.
Thir actions drew attention from District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, but he cleared the fair board after a review in 2010 that the activists complained was a whitewash.
A Voice of OC investigation revealed the existence of legal billing records that raised troubling questions for Ackerman and the fair board.
The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission launched an investigation in 2010 as a result of the Voice of OC article, but there has never been a formal conclusion to the probe.
Last year, district attorney investigators indicated that they had reopened the investigation into the circumstances behind the hiring of Ackerman, but there has been no further announcement regarding the status of that probe.
Ackerman meanwhile is among the leading candidates to become Orange County’s next clerk-recorder. County supervisors are considering whom to appoint to complete the term of Tom Daly, who was elected to the the 69th Assembly District in November.