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Former Foe of Builders Now Gets Their Money : Politics: Mission Viejo’s mayor, once a target of firms that wanted him recalled, changes his voting pattern.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mayor Robert A. Curtis has solicited and received contributions from many of the same developers who spent $500,000 to target him last year in one of the most expensive municipal recall campaigns in state history, according to campaign documents and interviews.

The paper trail also hints at an extraordinary relationship that has developed between the outspoken slow-growth advocate and the Mission Viejo Co.--in spite of $273,000 that the firm once contributed to promote tossing him out of office.

Within months of the unsuccessful recall election in February, 1990, the mayor and the Mission Viejo Co. were on friendly enough terms to:

* Encourage Curtis to ask the firm for permission to solicit contributions from the same development interests that rallied behind the attempt to unseat him.

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* Inspire a Mission Viejo Co. official to allegedly suggest to one subcontractor that he contribute to Curtis’ political committees.

* Have Curtis telephone Mission Viejo Co. offices 68 times from his workplace from May to November, 1990.

* Reverse the mayor’s voting habits. An inspection of City Council minutes indicates that before the recall election, Curtis voted against the Mission Viejo Co. on nearly every issue before him. After the recall failed, records show that he began to favor the company.

“His votes for them may be justifiable,” said Councilman William S. Craycraft, who was co-chairman of Curtis’ committee to fight the recall, “but for two years this guy beats the hell out of the Mission Viejo Co., and then all of a sudden, he thinks they’re wonderful.”

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In a recent interview, Curtis acknowledged the contributions and said developers who supported the recall had a moral obligation to help him.

“I went through hell,” Curtis said, “and if they (pro-recall developers) would like to make a salutatory donation to help ease that pain--the painful memory of their involvement--then I think that’s fine. That was my pitch to them.”

Curtis said his votes in favor of Mission Viejo Co. positions on issues are simply an indication of a new spirit of cooperation in the city.

The firm or any developer who thinks he is being influenced by their contributions will be surprised, he said, adding: “I am the same person now that I was prior to and during the recall, with the same values and goals for my community. If these companies are making contributions as an investment, it’s a poor investment, because there will be no predictable return.”

According to state-required campaign financing statements filed last month, Curtis raised $27,000 from development interests last fall. Curtis then used much of it to pay off his recall campaign debts, contribute to the successful City Council campaigns of two longtime supporters and repay a $1,835 phone bill for personal calls made from the Riverside County office where he worked as a prosecuting attorney.

The contributions were within the limits specified in state election laws. But Curtis’ acceptance of the money has disturbed residents and slow-growth advocates, the backbone of a grass-roots coalition that helped him win an overwhelming victory last year.

“I thought he was the greatest, I really did,” said Milt Jacobson, a former anti-recall worker whom Curtis subsequently appointed to the city Senior Citizens Commission. “Now, I feel betrayed. If big money contributes to you, they always want something back. It’s not proper, it’s not honest and it’s not moral for him to take their money.”

But notably, the Mission Viejo Co.--accused by Curtis of masterminding the ouster bid--has also had a change of heart about the mayor.

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In May, two months after the election, the bitter enemies made up. They surprised the city with a joint press release announcing Curtis’ support of the company’s plans for major housing and office developments.

When company Vice President David Celestin was asked at the time how the once-bitter foes could reconcile so quickly, he replied: “I’d say that Robert Curtis is a political opportunist and a political realist.”

To cement the new relations, the developer offered to spend millions to build youth athletic parks and scale back future development. However, Curtis was accused of “grandstanding” by some council members, and the council turned down the proposal in June.

Although the builder of this planned community of 75,000 residents did not donate to Curtis, 12 of 15 corporate or individual contributors listed on the campaign financing forms have had business relationships with the giant development firm.

And an official of at least one of the company’s construction subcontractors said his firm’s donation was made reluctantly after he receiving a phone call from the Mission Viejo Co. suggesting the contribution. The official said he did not recall who contacted his firm.

Mission Viejo Co. spokesperson Wendy Wetzel declined to comment about whether such a phone call was made, saying only that “we discuss a lot of issues with our business associates. But decisions on making contributions are up to the individual companies.”

Records also show that the developer gave money to political committees that a few days later contributed similar amounts to Curtis and his favored council candidates, Sharon Cody and Robert D. Breton, who were elected in November.

Less than a month before that election, the company made separate $5,000 donations to the Newport Beach-based Orange County Concerned Citizens and a committee led by Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum. Within a few days of each donation, the groups made similar contributions, Schabarum’s committee sending $5,000 to Curtis’ committee and the Concerned Citizens paying $4,490 for a political mailer on behalf of Breton and Cody.

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Cody said the mailer was sent without her knowledge and added: “I don’t think Bob (Curtis) should have accepted money from developers. It just doesn’t look good. I would not have done it.”

Breton said expensive campaigns put candidates in a position where they have to take money from special interests.

“I have no problems with that,” he said, “because, No. 1, it’s legal, and No. 2, I will never be influenced by anyone who contributed to me.”

Although Curtis said he knew nothing about Mission Viejo Co. fund-raising on his behalf, the mayor said he asked for, and received, the company’s blessing in May to seek donations from recall contributors.

“I just took the recall list and started calling, boom, boom, boom, hitting these people up,” he said. “I will gladly support contributions from people who formerly opposed me, even tried to destroy me politically, in order to strengthen me politically in order to achieve my goals for the city.”

The recall was prompted by Curtis’ desire to annex Aegean Hills, an unincorporated community of 7,000--a move opposed by the company and many residents. When Curtis pressed for the annexation, an angry group of citizens served him with recall papers at a council meeting in May, 1989.

For the next nine months, Curtis and his opponents flogged each other in an emotional, often-venomous campaign.

A letter the Mission Viejo Co. mailed citywide described Curtis as a politician “whose real problems stem from his own ethics and ambition.” The pro-recall group, the Alliance for Mission Viejo, distributed a newspaper-style tabloid to registered voters that attacked Curtis’ stance on varied positions and accused him of verbally abusing women at council meetings.

Curtis did not suffer in silence. He characterized Alliance for Mission Viejo workers as “paid mercenaries” and called the Mission Viejo Co. “arrogant” in its efforts “to buy City Hall.”

The company’s $273,000 investment in the recall campaign seemed to backfire, however. On Feb. 27, 1990, voters defeated the recall, 70% to 30%, in what was widely seen as a rejection of the developer’s involvement in city politics.

Then, the reconciliation occurred: From the time they announced their truce in May through the city elections in November, Curtis and company officials were in contact every few days, records indicate.

Telephone bills obtained under the state Public Records Act from the Riverside County district attorney’s office, where Curtis worked as a deputy prosecutor, show that he made 68 calls from his office to the company from May to November, 1990. Curtis said the calls were related to a proposal for a 719-home development submitted by the company and other city matters.

Curtis also made seven calls to the home or office of Frank Michelena, a lobbyist who occasionally works for the Mission Viejo Co. The mayor described those calls as also being related to “city business.”

Michelena did not return calls for comment last week.

Last fall, Riverside County auditors billed Curtis for $1,835 in phone charges for those and other calls not related to work, which were made over 18 months, beginning in June, 1989.

Curtis acknowledged that--as his campaign records indicate--the phone bill was paid from his political committee fund. Curtis resigned from the prosecutors’ office in December, saying he wanted to work closer to home.

In the weeks before the November, 1990, city election, the Mission Viejo Co. made at least one phone call on Curtis’ behalf, according to a grading subcontractor who says company officials suggested that his firm give Curtis money.

Mac Pilon, general manager of the Robert E. Fulton Co., a Brea-based construction firm, said the Mission Viejo Co. “came to us as they always do and said, ‘Could you please support Curtis?’ ”

The subcontractor subsequently donated $1,000 to a Curtis campaign committee. “Our donation wasn’t based on a whole lot of knowledge of Curtis,” Pilon said.

The Robert E. Fulton Co. also gave $1,000 to support the recall of Curtis, again at the behest of the Mission Viejo Co., Pilon said.

“To tell you the truth, we’d (otherwise) probably not spend the thousand or two thousand,” he said. “We’re not a very political company. But it’s kind of a necessary evil.”

Seven of the other 16 contributors to Curtis said the Mission Viejo Co. did not contact them on Curtis’ behalf. The other nine did not respond to phone messages from The Times over the last several weeks.

One developer who gave $6,000 to pro-recall forces last year said he gladly supported Curtis with a $500 donation after the mayor called him last September.

“I thought it was fair,” said Harvey Stearn, president of Pacific Getaway Homes in Irvine and a former Mission Viejo Co. executive. “I wanted to let him know it wasn’t personal. This was a way of saying, ‘Let’s let bygones be bygones.’ ”

After the failed recall attempt, Mission Viejo Co. representatives repeatedly said they would not get involved in November’s City Council campaign.

Company spokeswoman Wetzel declined to comment about two $5,000 donations by the company to two political action committees--groups that within days made similar contributions to Curtis and the campaigns of Breton and Cody.

On Oct. 12, 1990, Curtis received a $5,000 donation from the committee led by Schabarum, according to campaign finance records. And on Oct. 16, the supervisor’s committee received a $5,000 contribution from the Mission Viejo Co.

Schabarum, who recently retired as a supervisor, declined to comment on either contribution or the $20,000 his committees gave to pro-recall forces during the Curtis recall campaign.

Curtis, within two weeks of getting the money from the Schabarum committee, loaned $6,950 to the campaigns of Breton and Cody.

On Oct. 23, the Mission Viejo Co. also gave $5,000 to Orange County Concerned Citizens of Newport. On Oct. 26, the group reported paying $4,490 for a political mailing on behalf of Cody and Breton.

The group’s treasurer is listed as Laurie Michelena, daughter of the Mission Viejo Co. lobbyist. Michelena could not be reached to comment, although The Times left several messages on her telephone recorder.

In May, Wetzel praised the new-found partnership with Curtis, saying: “It’s time to put the disruptions behind us and go on with what’s good for Mission Viejo.”

However, other members of the community hold a different view of the relationship.

“He really betrayed his trust in the people who had backed him, who were opposed to the company,” said Gary Manley, a real estate salesman whom Curtis once nominated to the city Traffic and Transportation Commission. “He switched sides and has definitely been influenced by the Mission Viejo Co.”

Tom Rogers, a former Orange County Republican Committee chairman and a slow-growth advocate who contributed to Curtis’ anti-recall campaign, said he is disappointed by the mayor’s decision to accept donations from developers.

“I’ve seen this time and time again,” Rogers said.

After being elected, he said, some slow-growth politicians “use their leverage so they can come back to the fountain and lever developer assistance into their future political careers. . . . Curtis falls into that category.”

City Council minutes for several months leading up to the recall election show that Curtis voted against Mission Viejo Co. interests on at least three major issues, among them a citizen appeal of a shopping center owned by the company and the annexation of Aegean Hills.

Since the recall, three major projects and programs, along with several smaller issues affecting the Mission Viejo Co., have been before the council, and Curtis has supported the company on all but a few occasions.

“He has not been the slow-growth advocate he said he was,” Councilman Craycraft said. “His record definitely reflects that.”


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