D.A.: Board didn't have any conflicts of interest

COSTA MESA — The Orange County Fair Board did not violate any open meeting laws or have any conflicts of interest when it looked into the purchase and/or sale of the fairgrounds, the Orange County district attorney's office concluded in a report released late Thursday.

The 51-page report warned that although no laws were broken, public criticism of the group and the subsequent investigation should serve as a reminder even to avoid the appearance of wrongdoing.

The district attorney's office opened the inquiry after receiving a letter from County Counsel Nicholas S. Chrisos, dated Oct. 30, 2009, requesting an investigation.

Prosecutors investigated Chrisos' claims that the seven-member Fair Board had a clear conflict of interest when it hired former State Sen. Dick Ackerman to "lobby" on the board's behalf to have the fairgrounds put up for sale. Six of the board's seven members also formed a nonprofit, called the Orange County Fair and Event Center Foundation, to potentially buy the fairgrounds.

This lead critics to accuse them of using public for potential private gain.

This, however, wasn't how things happened, prosecutors concluded.

Chrisos could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

Ackerman was hired before the nonprofit had been formed and there was no evidence of a preexisting agreement. Also, he went to Sacramento to assess the seriousness of Gov. Schwarzenegger's plan to sell the 150-acre property in Costa Mesa to help balance the state budget.

Playing devil's advocate, the report notes that the only gains the board members would have from buying the land were free tickets to events and other "minimal" benefits. In themselves, those small benefits wouldn't stand up to prosecution, the report states.

"The evidence indicates that their intentions were directed toward preserving the O.C. fairgrounds and the fair itself, not for self profit," the report reads. "Under all of these facts a prosecution … would neither be justified or warranted."

The report criticized the board for how it announced that its members were looking to form a nonprofit, which, critics claimed, violated state open meeting laws. The board should have discussed the nonprofit foundation more openly, explained it more thoroughly and heeded advice on how to go about it from the state attorney general's office, the report concludes.

"Failing to specifically discuss the foundation at a public meeting, followed by the unannounced participation of the individual (Fair) Board members in it, produced the appearance of intentional secrecy or concealment and generated suspicion of wrongdoing," according to the report.

Investigators concluded that no laws were broken by Fair Board members, representatives or hired consultants.

"The facts disclosed by the investigation may, however, serve as a reminder of the importance of avoiding the appearance of impropriety," the report says.

Board member Dave Ellis referred comments to Fair Board president Steve Beazley, who was not immediately available for comment. The other board members were not immediately available for comment Thursday night.

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