Former senator cleared in fairground sale case

The Orange County district attorney has cleared a former state senator of accusations that he inappropriately lobbied legislators during a 2009 attempt to privatize the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

In a letter Tuesday, prosecutors said they found no evidence that Dick Ackerman, who was a senator from Irvine, illegally influenced his former colleagues.

The findings echo an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission that concluded last year.

In 2009, the Fair Board tried to sell the 150-acre state-owned fairgrounds to help close California's budget gap.

The move would have required legislative approval, and the board hired Ackerman, fresh from his post as a state senator, to explore the potential sale.

State law prohibits former legislators from acting as paid lobbyists within a year of their last day of office.

Ackerman made calls to legislators during the time he was working for the Fair Board, but his actions did not rise to the level of lobbying, according the FPPC.

In 2010, the district attorney's office found no evidence of wrongdoing during the attempted privatization, but last year, the Fair Board asked prosecutors to reexamine the sale, which was ultimately abandoned after it met fierce opposition.

A new set of board members voted to forward their own report on the sale to the district attorney and waive attorney-client privilege to aid in the investigation.

After interviewing the Fair Board's former legal representation at the California attorney general's office, prosecutors said Tuesday that they "found no evidence of wrongdoing by Mr. Ackerman."

Ackerman said that he wasn't surprised by the outcome and chastised new board members for returning to the issue.

"Some people on the current Fair Board want to spend time and energy on things that are not useful as opposed to doing what's best for the fair," he said.

All the board members who were involved in the sale attempt have since resigned or been replaced.

The district attorney's office is still investigating allegations that there was a conflict of interest when six of the Fair Board's seven members formed a nonprofit in 2009 with the intent of buying the fairgrounds.

There was some overlap between the investigation into Ackerman and the conflict of interest allegation, but, "They were actually two separate investigations," said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Ray Armstrong.

Fair Board President Stan Tkaczyk said he'd withhold judgment on the 2009 sale attempt until the district attorney's office finished its probe.

"I'm just going to wait and see what happens with the total investigation," he said.

Activist Theresa Sears, who helped prepare the 2013 report on the attempted sale, criticized the district attorney's finding, saying the system itself is broken.

"The bottom line is who would expect a fellow state legislator to squeal on a colleague?" she said.

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