The vacant lot sits on the very edge of town. On one side it is bordered by an almond orchard. On the opposite side are tract homes and more tract homes--the front of a rolling wave of municipal sprawl known as Greater Fresno. The lot is covered with weeds and fill dirt. A large sign beckons: “For Sale. Subdivision Land. 152 Lots.” No buyers come, for this is a vacant lot with complications, a lot with a story to tell.
It’s owned by a Fresno man named Bill Tatham Jr. It should be said here that Tatham is a friend. We hung out with the same bunch in high school, kept in touch since. Back then we called him “Wild Bill,” and he was a character. There was this board game we’d play on summer afternoons. The object was to take over the world by advancing armies across continents. Tatham’s tactics were bold, eccentric, cunning--and brutally successful. Most afternoons ended with Wild Bill ruling the world, and the rest of us wondering what hit us.
Two decades later, Bill apparently has not lost his touch. Which returns us to the vacant lot. He had wanted to subdivide the parcel and then sell to a builder. The project stalled before the City Council of Clovis, a suburban township on Fresno’s east side. Tatham went to a council member to find out why. The discussion turned to campaign contributions. He was told $10,000 would get the ball rolling. Payment was to be made in cash, long green, “in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day.”
Clever, but a mistake.
Wild Bill, always the gamesman, had come to these sessions with an edge.
He was wearing an FBI wire.
The federal investigation is being led by James Wedick, the high-profile FBI agent who recently dispatched several Sacramento politicos to laundry duty in Lompoc. Already, one middleman in the Tatham project has pleaded guilty to a shakedown conspiracy, implicating both politicians and developers. A grand jury has been convened. An initial round of six indictments was handed down Tuesday. A line of suspects willing to sing has begun to form.
The development “community” is nervous. Developers who once gave freely to politicians have lost interest in this form of democratic participation. In turn, the mayor announced Monday he won’t take any more developer money, never again, no more, no way. Security experts are in demand, sweeping offices for electronic bugs. Certain private meetings now begin with a robust frisking all around.
Many Fresnans will suggest that financial arrangements between developers and politicians are merely “business as usual,” hardly unique to this town. True, true. The pattern is familiar wherever fine tracts are built: First developers buy the land, cheap. Then they buy the city council, cheaper. The general plan is chucked, allowing for more dense and profitable development. Other requirements are waived--sewers, sidewalks. Such amenities can be added later, through assessment fees paid by the lucky homeowners.
To understand this process is to understand why, at their edges, so many California cities look the way they do. Surveying the sprawling stucco of the San Fernando Valley, or portions of Contra Costa County, or the Inland Empire, people will cluck: How could they let this happen? Well, when the supposed watchdogs of development are paid agents of developers, it’s amazing what can happen.
What happened here is that the players finally bumped into somebody who didn’t want to observe their rules: Wild Bill. “I got mad,” he told me the other day. It was all so crude, so blatant, so clumsy--so unnecessary. The politicians, he said, can survive without developer money, and developers can thrive without pre-greased councils: “They just don’t know any other way.”
In fact, Tatham said, honest developers welcome the investigation. Maybe now they won’t feel nervous about not answering the rattle of politicians’ cups. As for the others? Well, they have tried to make it rough on my friend. Hot warnings about “being finished in Fresno forever.” Harassing telephone calls through the night. Threats, veiled and otherwise.
He has quit going out much. When he does, funny things happen. Strangers approach him in the supermarket and clap him on the back like some local hero. Old business associates take pains not to speak to him, wary of the man with the magic wire: “If they see me in a restaurant,” he chuckled, “they get up and run.”
Finally, no builders will nibble at his lot. Either they don’t want to deal with the whistle-blower, or they suspect the subdivision would receive less than swell treatment before the besieged Clovis Council. And so Wild Bill is stuck and his lot must sit idle, marking the spot on the town’s edge where, for now anyway, the game has ended.