Attorney general should investigate L.A. fair group, congresswoman says

Fairgoers listen to a pitch for Lustre Craft cookware at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. ( Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times )

Fairgoers listen to a pitch for Lustre Craft cookware at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. ( Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times )

(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

A Pomona congresswoman has asked the California attorney general’s office to launch an investigation into the Los Angeles County Fair Assn., in part because of the large salaries and bonuses the money-losing nonprofit organization has paid its executives.

Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat whose district includes the county-owned Pomona fairgrounds, had earlier asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the association, with an eye on possibly revoking its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit.

At the same time, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors has ordered a sweeping audit of the organization.


The actions are in response to a Times investigation that found the association richly rewarded its top managers while losing millions of dollars and drifting far from its mission to promote the interests of the local agriculture industry.

“The association’s mismanagement is affecting the daily lives of citizens in Pomona as well as across the region,” Torres said in a letter Wednesday to state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. “I ask that you move quickly to conduct an investigation.”

Torres on Tuesday called for the IRS probe and sent a similar letter to the federal agency Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for Harris said the office would review Torres’ request. An IRS spokeswoman said it does not comment on such matters.

Association Chief Executive James Henwood and a spokeswoman for the organization did not respond to requests for comment.

The Times probe found that the association lost $6.25 million from 2010 through 2013, the most recent year for which its tax records are available.


Bonuses and incentive pay collected by Henwood and four of his managers during that time totaled $2.8 million, boosting their combined compensation to $8.75 million, according to the IRS filings. Henwood averaged about $846,000 in annual compensation those four years, including nearly $900,000 in 2013.

As Torres noted in her letter to Harris, Henwood’s bonus and incentive pay that year was more than the amount the county received from the association for year-round use of the fairgrounds, known as Fairplex.

Formed generations ago to advocate for farmers, the association now resembles a corporate conglomerate with a portfolio of enterprises -- including a hotel and conference center, and a catering firm -- that have little or nothing to do with agriculture. It has stopped allowing 4-H clubs to display their animals at the annual fair, which is instead dominated by carnival attractions, shopping and concert acts.

In August, the distance between the association’s current operations and its agrarian roots became stark when the organization hosted a rave concert at the fairgrounds; two young women who attended the rave were rushed to hospitals and died of apparent overdoses.


Before The Times’ findings were published, the head of the association’s board of directors, former Cal Poly President J. Michael Ortiz, defended the pay levels for Henwood and other executives, saying they were based on performance.

Association spokeswoman Renee Hernandez has said the association generates revenue for the county through rent payments on the fairgrounds and a tax that promoters pay to use the property for concerts and other events.

She also has said the association has expanded its acreage and programming devoted to agriculture in recent years.

In her letter to Harris, Torres singled out the raves for criticism, referring to complaints by neighbors that the concerts result in large numbers of drug-related arrests and bring noise and traffic.

The congresswoman wrote that she has “serious concerns that the association and its board have lost their focus on the betterment of the region.”

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