Just as auditors for the state’s fairgrounds financing agency warn there’s not enough documentation to give the California Fairs Financing Authority a clean bill of health, Orange County Fair Board members are intensifying their calls for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Gov. Jerry Brown to investigate the shadowy joint powers authority that’s apparently morphed into a slush fund for construction projects across the state’s 78 fairgrounds.
Set up in 1988 to speed construction by avoiding use of the state’s General Services Administration, the JPA, originally called the California Construction Authority, blew up in recent years after myriad questions arose about a failed project with photovoltaic panels purchased for installation across state fairgrounds.
Orange County Fair Board members also used the JPA in 2009, when they laundered more than $150,000 in payments for lobbying contracts by padding construction-related projects, such as paving the parking lot at the fairground equestrian facility.
On Thursday, a crowd of more than a hundred union members attended the Fair Board’s monthly public meeting and slammed the JPA for attempting to skirt the spirit of recent labor agreements instituted by the OC Fair & Event Center.
Orange County Fairground CEO Jerome Hoban, who represented the event center on the JPA in recent years, and his mentor, financing authority Executive Director Becky Bailey-Findley (also a former event center CEO), are in the midst of the controversy.
“Nobody wants to be responsible,” said Reggie Mundekis, an Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society activist Thursday as she talked about the three-year effort to discover how the secret lobbying effort to sell the fairgrounds began.
Solano County Supervisor John Vasquez, who was chairman of the construction authority over the past decade, attended Thursday’s meeting and told Fair Board members that the JPA had made mistakes but would cooperate on records requests.
Outside the meeting, Vasquez acknowledged the need for the agency to be more open, saying the JPA arrangement over the last decade had allowed “mission creep” as individual board members depended upon each other to approve construction-related invoices at fairgrounds.
Vasquez said he was frustrated with the sudden exit of auditors saying they had approved books for most of the decade. He also acknowledged that after the photovoltaic mishap and ensuing legal actions, the agency restricted access to its records.
He added that the millions of dollars being diverted through the JPA was largely a reflection of the state’s fiscal dysfunction in recent decades, and he admitted that accounting may have become lax. “The majority of the time, people weren’t trying to do anything wrong,” Vasquez said.
Yet to many fairgrounds activists, the confusion appears to be a mask for murkier interests.
Like many activists, Mundekis on Thursday publicly pointed a finger at Hoban and Bailey-Findley.
“Why is this person allowed anywhere near a fairgrounds?” said Mundekas, referring to the multiple roles played by Bailey-Findley as a state, city and private-sector fair consultant in recent years. She played both private and public-sector angles of fair management and the proposed fairground privatization.
Bailey Findley on Thursday declined comment, citing ongoing investigations.
The entire affair has added fuel to a simmering controversy over the failed privatization effort and how fair executive staff and Fair Board members worked together to facilitate privatization efforts. Many activists and fair board members have complained about the difficulty of getting records from the state agencies.
On Thursday, Fair Board members directed staff to return next month with an item to request boxes of legal records held at the Nossaman law firm connected to the lobbying efforts of former state Sen. Dick Ackerman, who is one of several finalists being considered by county supervisors to be the next Orange County clerk-recorder.
After hearing about the lack of auditing in recent years at the construction-related JPA, Fair Board director Nick Berardino pressed Hoban about the irregularities, questioning why Hoban continues to use the JPA for processing construction invoices while knowing that auditors have concerns.
“I want out of the [financing authority],” Berardino said. “How much corruption are we going to tolerate?”
Berardino also clashed publicly with Hoban over how safety classifications at the fairgrounds are being monitored. Hoban, in turn, criticized Berardino last month in an email to the statewide JPA leaders warning them in an email that a strike of the Pacific Amphitheatre expansion project might be planned.
Berardino and other labor leaders denied any strike action Thursday, although they took direct aim at Hoban for not being more vigilant over safety classifications on public works projects. They also criticized Hoban for attempting to silence criticism and for retaliating against the worker who raised questions.
“I’m not going away,” Berardino said. “I’m not going to be quiet.”
“We are going once and for all to straighten this place out,” he said. “I guarantee you we will clean this place up.”
While a DA report cleared the Fair Board in 2010, officials at the agency have said they have reopened an inquiry following a Voice of OC investigation that showed DA officials failed to examine key legal billing records by Ackerman that were hidden at the California Construction Authority.
On Thursday, following a presentation on a new DA unit monitoring public works projects for compliance with prevailing wage and safety regulations, one labor leader said he would be reporting the workplace incident for investigation.
A closed session agenda item on Hoban’s performance was scheduled for Thursday but was delayed until next week because a quorum of Fair Board members did not remain for the entire meeting.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the names of Orange County Fairground CEO Jerome Hoban and activist Reggie Mundekis. We regret the errors.