Ackerman probe closed without fine

A state watchdog agency has closed an investigation into a former state senator accused of improperly lobbying legislators on behalf of the Orange County Fair Board.

In a letter sent to Dick Ackerman last month, the Fair Political Practices Commission found that although Ackerman did discuss the ultimately failed sale of the fairgrounds property with his former colleagues, those conversations weren't egregious enough to warrant a fine.

"Well, it was not unexpected," Ackerman said of the letter, "but it took a little while; it took them four or five years to come to that conclusion."

The investigation stemmed from Ackerman's work for the Fair Board gathering input on a potential sale of the property, which would have required legislative approval, during the summer of 2009.

Because California law prohibits former state legislators from being paid to act as lobbyists within one year after their last day in office, the letter said Ackerman's calls to members of the state Senate and Assembly in June and July of 2009 — the height of the sale talks — merited a closer look.

Aspects of the controversial proposed sale are still under scrutiny, with various investigations related to its execution pending.

Ultimately, though, there was "insufficient evidence" to show that those calls "rose to the level of 'influencing legislative action,'" according to the letter.

If Ackerman had been found to have violated the "one-year ban," the letter said, he would have been subject to a $5,000 fine for each violation.

Fair Board Chairman Stan Tkaczyk said the letter left him with questions — and without a sense of closure.

"It wasn't what I perceived to be a real clear vindication," he said. "What level has to be hit in order for [Ackerman's actions] to be wrong?"

But Dave Ellis, a Fair Board member who pushed for the property's sale at the time, said he saw the FPPC's letter as a clear sign that the accusations were spurious from the get-go.

"It's all good news," he said. "It was a ridiculous charge from the beginning, so I'm glad it was concluded."

Theresa Sears, an Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society member who served on a Fair Board committee that reviewed the sale, wasn't surprised "the FPPC could not get another legislator to speak out against Ackerman."

"He got lucky on this one," she wrote in an email.

— Staff Writer Bradley Zint contributed to this report.

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