Time and again, state regulators warned Orange County Fair officials that they were giving board members far too many free tickets to concerts and other events. The handouts, they said, might be an inappropriate use of public funds.
And time and again, fair officials promised to address the concerns. But they didn't.
Since the Pacific Amphitheatre reopened for business at the fairgrounds in 2003, fair directors have taken thousands of premium tickets for some of the summer's hottest musical acts, giving them to friends, associates and political donors.
At the same time, the concert series -- which has attracted such performers as Bob Dylan and Ziggy Marley -- has struggled to make a profit. In three of the last five years, the concerts have lost money, according to revenue reports.
Those figures do not factor in renovation costs at the amphitheater.
Fair officials say they are reviewing whether to change their policy, which allows each of nine board members up to 26 complimentary tickets to the best seats in the house for every concert. For the LeAnn Rimes concert in July, for instance, that came to 247 seats in the orchestra section. In contrast, Los Angeles County Fair officials allow each board member four tickets to each concert, typically in the bleacher section. Board members are expected to pay if they want a better seat.
The biggest ticket-taker was Deborah Carona, the wife of former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona. Over the last two years she used or gave away more than 1,100 tickets. Many went to her husband, his political donors, members of the Sheriff's Department and a private high school in Orange. On occasion, Carona exceeded her 26-ticket limit and received unused tickets from other directors. She did not respond to a request for comment.
The Orange County Fair is among five in California put on notice by the state for giving away too many free tickets. The others are San Diego, Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Fresno counties. Fair Chief Executive Becky Bailey-Findley and board President Dale Dykema promised the policy would be revised before the county fair opens in July.
They said it was too early to discuss details.
"We definitely will be making changes," said Dykema, who according to records gave most of his free tickets to charities. "At this point in time I'm not prepared to discuss what those changes will be. . . . It's not an easy thing to work out."
The ticket policy for board members went into effect after the Pacific Amphitheatre, which was unused for years, was revived as a concert venue.
The free tickets are part of a larger group of courtesy passes distributed by the fair for a wide array of events, and not just to board members. Nearby residents, for instance, also get complimentary seats to all shows under a good-neighbor policy aimed at helping make up for noise and other inconveniences.
Originally, the concert tickets could be used by the directors themselves or given to others, as long as they promoted the fair, recognized volunteers or supported youth groups, schools and organizations that serve the military. Bailey-Findley said the board arrived at the 26 figure through discussions with staff about how to "generate community goodwill and attention" and promote the fair. "It didn't come out of a vacuum or one person's decision," she said.
Free passes for concerts, admission and other events cannot exceed 4% of gross fair proceeds for the preceding year. In three annual audits starting in 2004, state regulators found the total number of courtesy tickets given away to all fair events was double or triple the state's 4% rule.
Amid the flurry of warnings, the fair broadened the language of its ticket policy to allow board members to give free tickets to "consumers" and "charitable organizations."
During a public meeting in June 2006, fair staff recommended policy changes to address a different concern raised by state auditors: that the fair was not keeping reliable records of who was getting its courtesy passes, or why they were getting them, according to fair records.
At the time, Dykema reminded the board that the free tickets were also a sore point with the state, and that the new policy failed to address that, according to board minutes. Bailey-Findley and board members have maintained that the free tickets help generate interest in the fair and drive up attendance, and point out that board members are not paid for their service.
The 2007 audit has not been completed. But representatives of the Department of Food and Agriculture and state lawyers met last month with fair officials after the Orange County Register published a story about the ticket policy.