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Leading Fresno Developer Is Indicted on Corruption Charges

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The developer who built much of Fresno and Madera counties over the last half-century, whose power has been felt by successive generations of local and state politicians, was indicted Friday on wide-ranging charges that he attempted to corruptly influence public officials to secure approval for housing tracts.

John Bonadelle, 80, was charged along with two former Fresno councilmen, one of whom served as Bonadelle’s personal lobbyist for the past two decades.

The 13-count indictment announced in Sacramento caps a four-year FBI and IRS investigation of municipal corruption in Fresno and adjacent Clovis. Federal agents say they have uncovered a decades-long practice of developers subverting local zoning and environmental laws by buying off politicians in this fast-growing farming region.

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As part of the ongoing investigation dubbed Operation Rezone, nine politicians, lobbyists and developers have pleaded guilty or been sent to prison. Their crimes range from wire fraud to obstruction of justice--all related to key City Council votes on rezoning and housing development.

Bonadelle is the biggest name to be implicated in what authorities have called a “vast web of corruption.” No builder has amassed more wealth or has been more bold in expressing his political might than the onetime dairy and cattle rancher.

“John Bonadelle is a very successful, very powerful developer in the Fresno-Clovis area and as a result this is a very significant indictment,” said Paul Seave, the U.S. attorney for the sprawling Eastern District, which includes Fresno.

Bonadelle is charged with engaging in “a pattern of racketeering activity” that includes money laundering, witness tampering and bribery.

A federal grand jury said his activities in the early 1990s were designed “to bribe, offer bribes, and transfer money covertly to elected officials, thereby enhancing his position, the position of Land Dynamics [his company] and the position of family members with respect to land development issues,” according to the 30-page indictment.

In a news conference at his Fresno office, Bonadelle told a few jokes and then denied any wrongdoing.

“I have spent 50 years of my life helping build this community. Now these federal prosecutors are coming down here from Sacramento making these allegations,” he read from a prepared statement. “They can make a mountain of allegations, but they are still allegations.”

Since federal agents arrived from Sacramento, they have made no secret of their desire to understand the power wielded by Bonadelle and his kin.

The grand jury said the racketeering activities include bribery, mail fraud and four acts of witness tampering. Besides one count of racketeering, Bonadelle is charged in three counts of giving or offering to give something of value to Fresno area politicians in connection with their official duties.

Jim Logan, a Fresno councilman in the 1970s and Bonadelle’s longtime lobbyist, was charged Friday with offering and giving Clovis Councilman Glynn L. Bryant deposits at the bank where Bryant was branch manager.

The money was allegedly intended to reward and influence Bryant regarding a development proposal. Bryant has pleaded guilty to corruption charges in a case not involving Bonadelle.

Former Fresno Councilman Bob Lung was charged with mail fraud, money laundering and accepting money from Bonadelle with the intent to be influenced and rewarded in connection with the business of the Fresno City Council.

Logan and Lung could not be reached for comment Friday.

Rumors of bribery and extortion long have been a part of the political landscape here. But federal agents say it wasn’t until the 1980s, as the population boomed and developers began speculating on farmland at the fringe of town, that things got crazy. They allege that politicians, at the behest of friendly developers, were making a mockery of zoning laws and general plans.

One lobbyist, Jeff Roberts, was so proud of his ability to bend the City Council and Board of Supervisors that he drove around town with the license plate REZONE. The probe began in 1994 when developer Bill Tatham Jr. was told that he couldn’t get his property in Clovis rezoned to residential. Not unless he paid a $10,000 “fee.”

Tatham, the scion of a wealthy and prominent Fresno family, walked into a meeting with Roberts and Clovis City Councilman Leif Sorensen wired for sound. He walked out with a recording of an extortion attempt.

Not trusting local authorities, Tatham took the shakedown to the FBI in Sacramento. So began Operation Rezone, named in honor of Roberts’ license plate.

Tatham’s tape was a key piece of evidence that sent Roberts and Sorensen to prison. The guilty pleas of seven other politicians and developers have followed.

If convicted, Bonadelle, Logan and Lung face lengthy prison terms. Racketeering is punishable by a 20-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine; money laundering, 20 years and a $500,000 fine; witness tampering, 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine; and mail fraud, 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.


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