Orange County Fair board members cleared in probe of land sale effort

It's the second time in four years the D.A. has found no wrongdoing in attempted sale of fairgrounds in O.C.

Prosecutors have cleared Orange County Fair board members of wrongdoing in a criminal probe related to the state's failed effort to sell off the 150-acre fairgrounds to help California balance its budget.

For a second time in four years, the Orange County district attorney's office has determined that former members of the fairgrounds' governing body did not break any laws.

The effort to sell the land in Costa Mesa, part of a statewide push by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to raise money during tough times by selling off state-owned land and offices, became subject to legal challenges before effectively being scrapped in 2011 by Gov. Jerry Brown.

"As we look to the 2015 O.C. Fair, and celebrating 125 years of family fun, we hope to move beyond the events of the past," Ashleigh Aitken, the fair board's chairwoman, said in a statement.

The district attorney's findings echoed a conclusion reached in 2010, when officials found that fair board members did not violate open-meeting laws or have conflicts of interest when they were wrestling with the possible sale of the fairgrounds.

The second investigation began in 2013 after an independent committee created by the fair board raised new questions about the sale. The board forwarded the committee's findings to the district attorney.

The alleged wrongdoing examined in the second probe included illegal lobbying activity on behalf of the board by former state Sen. Dick Ackerman, violating state open-meeting laws, misappropriating public funds and conflicts of interest.

Ackerman was cleared in May, and the district attorney sent the board notice Monday that there was no evidence to support the other accusations.

Dave Ellis, the former chairman of the fair board, was among the board members who retained Ackerman to create a private nonprofit foundation that would try to buy the fairgrounds from the state.

The move was seen by critics as a conflict of interest because the board members were trying to acquire the property while simultaneously serving on its governing body.

The D.A. office's disagreed.

"The members of the board involved in the formation of the nonprofit foundation had no financial interest in the sale of the O.C. Fairgrounds," the report states. "The Fair Board was not involved, even indirectly, in the state's decision to sell the fairgrounds or the state's decision of who the fairgrounds should be sold to."

bradley.zint@latimes.com

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