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Federal Probe Focuses on Fresno Land Deals : Government: A hometown hero turns whistle-blower as an inquiry looks into the close ties between a handful of elected officials and local developers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Of the successes that rose from the Dust Bowl migration here, none has been more stunning than that of the Tatham family, horse traders extraordinaire who parlayed a few nursing homes into a $200 million fortune in real estate and farm holdings.

Their journey from Oklahoma poverty to Fresno riches was recently captured in a major book, “Rising in the West,” the story of an Okie family from the Great Depression through the Ronald Reagan years.

It closed with the dreams and foibles of the next generation, in particular Bill Tatham Jr., who collected headlines and headaches in the 1980s trying to turn his Arizona Outlaws into a National Football League franchise.

Now what may be the most improbable chapter of all in the family’s saga is being written here. Four months ago, the 39-year-old Tatham, also known as “Wild Bill,” walked into a meeting wired for sound and walked out with a tape recording of a city councilman and lobbyist allegedly soliciting a bribe from Tatham, authorities said.

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It has set into motion a wide-ranging FBI and IRS investigation into the long-rumored corrupt ties between some politicians and builders. And it has thrust Tatham, a real estate investor whose close relationship to the mayor of Fresno became a campaign issue 18 months ago, into the unlikely role of whistle-blower.

“I’ve taken a huge risk and I know I’m going to pay a big price,” said Tatham, a lawyer who returned to Fresno in 1988 after failing to land an NFL franchise in Phoenix. “I may never do business in this town again. But the bottom line is I had no choice but to go to the FBI. It’s one of the few things I’ve done in my life that feels good.”

This land of raisins may be in for its first bloodletting since the great liquor scandal of 1925, thanks to the local football hero come home.

What began in March as an inquiry of one city councilman and a building industry lobbyist in the adjacent town of Clovis now appears to be a wider investigation into land-use matters in greater Fresno, one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.

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Federal authorities confirm that a probe is ongoing but refuse to identify the politicians and developers who are being investigated. Sources say that federal agents are not only exploring the close ties between a handful of elected officials and local developers, but they are questioning such heavyweights as Kaufman & Broad, the state’s biggest home builder and a newcomer to this area.

Sources questioned by federal agents said the investigation is focusing on at least two council members in Fresno and Clovis allegedly selling land-use votes. These supposed tit for tat deals appear to have worked in one of three ways, sources say: cash listed on public records as legitimate campaign contributions, money laundered to buy political advertising, or under the table payments that go directly into a politician’s pocket.

Sources questioned in the probe said federal agents have marveled at the riches up for grabs and the stranglehold big builders appear to have on the political process.

In Fresno, City Hall observers can recall only one time--during a period of 14 months and hundreds of votes--when the current City Council or planning commission denied a developer’s request for rezoning or a plan amendment.

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“You will not find a place with more tangled relationships,” said Jim Klein, a former planning commissioner who was let go last year by Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson for voting against the building industry.

In the months since Tatham took part in the sting, federal authorities have convened a grand jury in Sacramento and subpoenaed about a dozen people to testify. No one has been indicted but nerves are frayed. More than one developer has swept his office for electronic bugs.

What has everyone so skittish is the reputation of the two investigators heading the case--FBI Agent James J. Wedick and IRS Agent Howard Moline. It was Wedick who snared 14 people, including state Sens. Joseph B. Montoya, Alan Robbins and Paul Carpenter, in a FBI sting operation centered in the state Capitol. And it was Moline who helped Wedick track down the fugitive Carpenter in Costa Rica this spring.

The two men are keeping mum. “All we are able to say is that there is an investigation and Bill Tatham Jr. came to us and we view him as a victim,” said Linda Wodarski of the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento.

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Whether a function of its detached geography--180 miles south of San Francisco, 210 miles north of Los Angeles--or its complacent citizenry, Fresno has long been considered by the feds to be one of the most lawless cities in the country.

Its Chinatown opium dens and gambling halls were among the nation’s busiest in the early 1900s. During Prohibition, a quarter of its police force--the chief and several of his top men--resigned after federal authorities caught them taking $120,000 in protection money from three bootleggers.

Latter-day Fresno has limped from scandal to scandal with nary a housecleaning. In 1950, vice lords devised a fantastic scheme to use a chinchilla farm to launder prostitution, gambling and drug proceeds for friendly politicians. In separate court cases in the 1970s, one developer was convicted of giving a $4,000 bribe and the councilman in question was acquitted of taking it.

Bill Tatham Jr., a star running back in high school, says he knew nothing of this history while growing up. Even after leaving town and going toe to toe with the NFL in an antitrust lawsuit, Tatham said he was unprepared for how the game was played in Fresno.

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“I didn’t come home to make waves,” he said. “I made plenty of waves in the football business. I just wanted to develop a few parcels in Clovis and be left alone.”

What Tatham did not realize was how cutthroat the development business had become in response to Los Angeles-based Kaufman & Broad entering the market in 1992.

Hometown builders such as John Bonadelle and his sons-in-law, Robert McCaffrey and Jerry DeYoung--who had contributed to the campaigns of countless elected officials over the years--were suddenly pressuring politicians to put roadblocks in front of Kaufman & Broad projects, according to several former and current City Council members who said they received pressure.

Sensing an opportunity, they said, some politicians began shaking down developers and builders.

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“I wanted to develop a 152-house project in Clovis and let Kaufman & Broad build it,” Tatham said. “The word from the City Council was get rid of Kaufman & Broad and we’ll pass it.”

Tatham hired a well-known lobbyist, Jeff Roberts, to ease the project through. In January it became clear, Tatham said, that more lobbying was needed. Tatham and Roberts then met with Clovis City Councilman Leif Sorensen, and at least one of these meetings was secretly recorded by Tatham.

Sorensen, one of the targets of the federal probe, allegedly offered to change his pivotal vote on Tatham’s subdivision, according to attorneys involved in the case. In return, according to Tatham, Sorensen demanded $10,000 in contributions to three council candidates backed by Bonadelle and other builders.

Lobbyist Roberts became a conduit for $2,500 from Tatham to the three pro-growth candidates, federal authorities allege. Roberts later returned another $5,000 check to Tatham. In a letter to Tatham quoted in the Fresno Bee, Roberts said he was returning the $5,000 check because he was concerned that it could be misconstrued as “unethical.”

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Roberts, Sorensen and the three candidates who shared the $2,500 have denied any wrongdoing, even though the contribution was not reported on campaign financial statements until after the feds came to town. The three candidates were defeated by slow-growth advocates in April.

“I’m not guilty of anything,” Sorensen told the Bee. “It is pathetic that people would resort to this type of tactics to win a race in Clovis.”

“I’ve been at this a long time and I’ve never been accused of anything,” Roberts said. “I have to be really careful. It’s my whole career on the line.”

The tapes do not lie, Tatham says. He denies that he went to federal authorities after having second thoughts about his own role in a bribe. “I wasn’t trying to save my own butt. These guys tried to extort $10,000 out of me and that’s not the way I do business.”

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Sources questioned by federal agents said another $10,000 payment--from Kaufman & Broad to a Fresno-Clovis real estate agent--is also being examined. The head of Kaufman & Broad’s local operations was fired in April after federal authorities began asking questions. A company spokesman said the firing was related to the employee “inappropriately” generating a $10,000 check for a proposed housing subdivision. The spokesman would not identify the real estate agent or the elected official for whom the payment was allegedly intended.

“We’ve cooperated with the U.S. attorney’s office to the extent that they’ve asked us for information,” said Greg Romano, Kaufman & Broad’s spokesman.

Sources say federal agents are looking at similar deals in Fresno, including a vote in November to allow Kaufman & Broad to build houses with unusually small back yards.

The request was initially opposed by council members, with Councilman Robert Lung leading the charge. Two weeks later, the matter came before Lung and his colleagues. It was passed without a word of discussion.

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Five days earlier, campaign records show, Lung received a $500 campaign contribution from Kaufman & Broad. “I happened to have a fund-raiser and they donated to my campaign,” Lung said. “There was no quid pro quo.”


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