As county supervisors cleared the way for a decade-long housing boom that changed the face of Orange County, millions of dollars poured into their campaign coffers from development interests, many of which stood to profit from that growth.
A new computer-assisted investigation by The Times found that developers and related businesses--architects, contractors, realty agents and the like--have donated 42% of the campaign money collected by supervisors and board candidates during the last 14 years.
No other industry comes close. Second place went to the finance industry, but its $698,000 in contributions were dwarfed by the $3.7 million that the development community donated.
"The disparity is huge," said Larry Makinson, research director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics and one of more than a dozen campaign-finance experts, politicians and activists with whom The Times shared its findings. "That shows you who's driving the politics in Orange County. It would certainly cause me concern if I lived there."
At the same time that they received important financial backing from the development community, the supervisors--who have the final say over land-use issues in unincorporated areas--made decisions that transformed southern and eastern Orange County. With the board's approval, thousands of acres of rural ranchland were developed into some of the nation's most valuable residential real estate.
The board members defend their decisions, and many of them drew support from more than just the development community. Most important, say the supervisors and others, the decisions to support those projects and issues were made not because of political contributions but because they would benefit Orange County residents.
"I think a concentration of any particular segment of the community, when it comes to political contributions, is not comfortable," Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder said.
But she added: "It's a bunch of baloney to say that contributions affect votes. Your decisions can't be for helping your angel. It's got to be a good project. I have voted many times against people who contributed to me."
The relationship between the board and the development community is of particular concern to some observers, because while building has lagged during the current recession and more and more land is being swallowed up by new cities, thousands of acres of buildable property remain under the supervision of the county board.
"The political process of this county has been perverted by that," said Norm Grossman, an environmental activist who lives in Laguna Beach. "Development money is used to scare away challengers, and the supervisors rely on it to do that. That, no doubt, causes them to look more favorably on development proposals."
Supervisors say that is simply not true, but they and others acknowledge that development money plays an important part in supervisorial campaigns. Of the $8.7 million that candidates for the board reported receiving during the last 14 years, $3.7 million came from companies or individuals who make their living through property development and sales.
Second place went to the finance industry--bankers, stockbrokers, accountants and a few other related fields. But it was a far distant second, contributing 7.7% of the total, compared to more than 42% from development interests. Lawyers and law firms ranked third, contributing a little more than $543,000--or about 6.2%.
That means Orange County land-development and real estate interests contributed more than the finance industry, the legal community, the tourist trade, the manufacturing industry and organized labor combined.
"Those numbers are staggering," said Lisa Foster, executive director of California Common Cause, a leading campaign-watchdog organization. "The danger is obvious. When you're dependent on one industry for (nearly) half of your contributions, that's extraordinary. It certainly suggests that you'd think twice before offending that industry."
Representatives of several local developers and builders--including the Koll Co., the Irvine Co., the Mission Viejo Co. and the William Lyon Co.--say their firms and executives make contributions not to influence decisions but rather to assist candidates whose views they support.
"We have what I would probably characterize as a corporate ethic of activism in public affairs," said Larry Thomas, the Irvine Co.'s vice president for corporate communications. "We give to candidates who stand for ideas that we share as a general philosophy."
Dana Reed, a Costa Mesa lawyer who specializes in political campaigns, said that most contributors share that approach. He attributed the large percentage of Orange County development contributions to the fact that developers are based here while other businesses usually are headquartered outside of the county.
"With the exception of the development industry, Orange County is a branch managers' town," he said. "And branch managers don't give with the frequency and magnitude that the corporate headquarters do."
Among environmentalists and some community activists, however, few accept Reed's reasoning, and many blame development industry money for problems that they perceive in local politics.
"Back when I was the finance director of the county Republican Party, I realized that these people (local developers) did not have the motivation for good government," said Tom Rogers, a San Juan Capistrano rancher and slow-growth activist who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 1978. "They would support a communist if it would get them their entitlements."
Supervisors respond that they vote their consciences on development proposals, regardless of the potential loss of political contributions.
"I don't like anyone challenging my integrity," said Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who represents much of southern Orange County. "I have never felt any pressure to vote a certain way (because of a contribution), and I don't think anyone would ever ask me to."
No one interviewed for this story accused Riley or his colleagues of any wrongdoing.
As development industry supporters and opponents reviewed the findings of The Times' investigation, both sides agreed on at least one thing: The county would be better off with a broader base of campaign money. But broadening the political base is not an easy task, nor is it one that can be ordered by policy-makers.
With a few notable exceptions, other local businesses have shown little inclination to dive into local campaigns. The Orange County Chamber of Commerce is much less politically active than chambers in some areas, according to Reed and other observers. And although the county has other large businesses, none has played a major role in county politics.
"It's almost by default that the development industry dominates here," Reed said. "But even though that's true, it's not true in perpetuity."
Others agreed, and many urged the supervisors to consider limiting campaign contributions, wage less expensive races and work harder to tap constituencies that have been overlooked in the past.
"What the Board of Supervisors needs to realize is that the perception is that the development industry owns county government," Grossman said. "It might take some self-restraint; it's hard to turn down money. But I think that's what they need to start doing if they're going to change that perception."
Computer research was conducted by Landsbaum. Newton reported and wrote this article.