D.A. again clears former fair board in land-sale attempt
For a second time in four years, the Orange County district attorney’s office has determined that former members of the Orange County fairgrounds’ governing body did not break any laws during an attempt by the state to sell the fairgrounds.
In an eight-page letter to fairgrounds CEO Doug Lofstrom on Monday, district attorney’s investigators said no evidence could be found that fair board members at the time committed criminal wrongdoing during the state’s ultimately failed effort to sell the 150-acre property in Costa Mesa.
Both investigations looked into allegations of conflict of interest and misuse of public funds stemming from the attempt by certain board members at the time to create a private nonprofit foundation with the goal of buying the fairgrounds.
The funds intended for the creation of the foundation were part of a longstanding fairgrounds contract, though after fair staff saw the problem, the board members paid the cost themselves, the district attorney’s office determined.
The probes also explored accusations of illegal lobbying on behalf of the board by former state Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine). The district attorney’s office determined that Ackerman did contact legislators, but not with the intent of trying to influence legislation that would enable the sale of the fairgrounds and other public lands.
The move to sell the fairgrounds, which began in 2009 as an attempt by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to unload some state properties to shore up the then-ailing state budget, became subject to legal challenges before effectively getting scrapped in 2011 under a new governor, Jerry Brown.
“As we look to the 2015 OC Fair, and celebrating 125 years of family fun, we hope to move beyond the events of the past,” said fair board Chairwoman Ashleigh Aitken in a prepared statement Tuesday.
Aitken began her term on the board in 2012, after the failed sale. None of the current board members were involved in the sale.
The recent findings by the district attorney’s office echo the organization’s earlier conclusion, reached in 2010. The second investigation began in 2013 after the independent Fair Sale Review Committee, created by the fair board, raised additional questions about the sale in a damning report released in January of that year. The board later forwarded the findings to the district attorney’s office with the hope that its investigators, armed with more prosecutorial authority than the committee, could reexamine the sale.
The second examination included additional records reviews and interviews with witnesses not available during the first investigation.
Ackerman was cleared by the district attorney earlier this year of improperly lobbying state legislators. He was also cleared by the state Fair Political Practices Commission in 2013.
Theresa Sears, an activist with the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society who also served on the Fair Sale Review Committee, was critical of the district attorney’s findings Tuesday.
“I don’t think anyone was holding out that the D.A. would reverse their original decision,” Sears said in an email. “That would require them to admit their first investigation was severely flawed.”
She said the preservation society, which fought the sale, “stayed focused and accomplished that. Now we must ensure policies are in place that properly protect our public assets for future generations.”
Former fair board Chairman Dave Ellis was among the board members who retained Ackerman to create the nonprofit foundation, which never actually submitted a formal bid for the fairgrounds property. The move was seen by critics as a conflict of interest because the board members were trying to acquire the property while simultaneously serving on its governing body.
However, the district attorney’s office disagreed, saying the board members had no personal financial stake in the matter.
“The members of the board involved in the formation of the nonprofit foundation had no financial interest in the sale of the O.C. fairgrounds,” the report states. “The fair board was not involved, even indirectly, in the state’s decision to sell the fairgrounds or the state’s decision of who the fairgrounds should be sold to.
“In other words, the O.C. fairgrounds were not being sold by the O.C. fair board; they were being sold by the state.”
Ellis, first appointed to the board by Schwarzenegger in 2007, resigned in January. He was frequently critical of the Fair Sale Review Committee’s findings, calling them overtly biased “conjecture” and “speculation.”
“I appreciate the D.A.’s thorough work,” Ellis said in a statement Tuesday, “and hopefully the second time is a charm, allowing those obsessed with the past to move on.”