Arnold Forde: Half a Century of Big Time Politics

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Arnold (Arnie) Forde, identified in depositions as the secret boss behind Irvine’s Great Park, has been a publicity-shy mainstay of both Republican and Democratic California political campaigns for nearly half a century.

He and his partners are famous within political circles for innovative, exceptionally effective direct mail fundraising and campaign strategies on behalf of political candidates, nonprofit groups and governments.

At the same time, Forde and his associates have amassed a catalog of critics for their ethics and tactics.

At one point, Orange County Superior Court Judge Donald E. Smallwood berated Forde and his former partner, campaign consultant William Butcher, for “hoodwinking” the public with “fraudulent” fund-raising tactics.

Through it all, Forde and his business partners were known for making money. A lot of money.

But the methods used by Forde and his partners to get themselves paid are what set off Smallwood in the 1995 court case and, today, puts Forde in the Irvine spotlight.

Former Great Park CEO Michael Ellzey said in depositions released July 21 that behind-the-scenes, it was Forde and another Irvine city consultant, not city staff, who really were in control of the park. And if Forde and the other consultant didn’t like proposed cuts, city staff “would be told to shove it, basically.”

Forde did not respond to an email and follow-up telephone call from Voice of OC requesting an interview.

Depositions Put Forde in Secret Control of Great Park

Forde’s current firm, Newport Beach-based Forde & Mollrich, has received more than $7 million to promote the park, according to city auditors. They also ran the 2002 campaign in which voters rejected the former El Toro Marine base as a commercial airport. Instead, the onetime military base was supposed to become the Great Park.

More than $200 million has been spent on the park, which was expected to rival New York’s Central Park, but the current Irvine City Council majority has complained there is too little to show for the spending. They hired outside auditors to find out where the money went.

Ellzey said in his deposition Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran had such a close relationship with Forde and another of the park’s private consultants that Ellzey and the rest of the park’s staff were, in effect, working for the very consultants they were supposed to be overseeing.

Yehudi Gaffen of the Los Angeles project management consulting firm Gafcon Inc. and Forde are both close to Agran, according to Ellzey’s deposition.

“I began to figure out that, at best, Yehudi Gaffen was my counterpart, and at worst, I was, de facto working for him. Certainly working for Arnold Forde,” Ellzey said in his deposition.

“It was just wrong that a contractor/consultant was directing a public body,” he added.

When he identified wasteful spending, the contractors blocked his efforts to curtail it, Ellzey said.

“It was one of those things where if we eventually rose to the level of trying to shut down something that we didn’t believe was…worth our investment, it would go to…Gaffen, it would go to Arnold Forde, it would come back, and we would be told to shove it, basically,” Ellzey said.

The Orange County Register reported July 22 that “Gaffen’s company, Gafcon, issued a written statement denying the facts and tone of the depositions.

‘Gafcon is appalled by the continued misinformation being released regarding the Orange County Great Park project.

‘None of these statements are true. At best, these are gross misstatements of the facts, and at worst, they are direct lies.’”

Who is Arnold Forde?

Forde, 78, a Republican, is “very talented, very honest, very conscientious about his clients’ interests,” said Butcher in a telephone interview. “I never knew him to do anything inappropriate.”

From his home atop a Laguna Beach cliff overlooking the ocean, Forde collects modern art, and enjoys rooting for the Lakers. But he avoids the limelight.

“He’s very outgoing about things he’s interested in” like art and sports, said Butcher. “He’s not very outgoing about things he’s not interested in. He’s not a hail-fellow-well-met” personality, the kind who “is willing to talk to anybody about anything.”

Forde first gained political attention in the 1960s when he and Butcher formed Butcher-Forde Consulting.

At the height of their political and financial success, they called themselves the “Darth Vaders of Direct Mail.”

Forde’s clients, according to his web site, have included Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in his first term and Republicans Sen. Pete Wilson and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Forde and his partners helped run the 1986 campaign that caused Rose Bird to lose her re-election, the only California Supreme Court chief justice to be turned aside by voters.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is another politician who used Forde and his ties to Agran to help with his 2002 election, according to the OCWeekly. Rackauckas also was active in the 1986 anti-Rose Bird campaign.

Perhaps most famously, Forde and his former partner Butcher, were instrumental in 1978’s voter approval of Proposition 13, the ballot initiative that limits property taxes.

But before becoming self-described villains, the two were Orange County political consultants who initially specialized in Democratic legislative campaigns, including the Garden Grove assembly seat and later state Controller’s races for Ken Cory, Butcher’s childhood friend and brother-in-law.

Many county Democratic campaigns at the time, including Cory’s, received funding from Santa Ana Dr. Louis J. Cella, a registered Republican who ultimately was convicted of embezzling millions of dollars from hospitals and Medicare.

When Cella went to prison, funds for local Democratic candidates dried up and Forde and Butcher began handling more Republicans.

By then, Butcher-Forde Consulting was known statewide for its highly successful use of direct mail in suburban campaigns. In the Los Angeles region, television ads are far too expensive for most candidates. 

While candidates generally used mail in their legislative races, Butcher and Forde refined the technique to target specific neighborhood issues and other narrow topics that could help their candidates.

“I think it’s fair to say we advanced the art and probably applied more science to it as well than had previously been utilized,” Butcher said.

But they also were repeatedly accused of crossing ethical lines.

For example, in 1980, Republican Assemblyman Ross Johnson of La Habra, who would go on to head the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission or FPPC, had to apologize to voters in his district after a Butcher-Forde campaign mailer on his behalf was designed to look like official correspondence from each city.

A year earlier, the FPPC sued Butcher-Forde and state Sen. John G. Schmitz (R-Newport Beach) for trying to hide the fact that Butcher-Forde was paid to run Schmitz’ 1978 campaign.

In addition, Butcher-Forde was accused of taking about $30,000 in “kickbacks” from campaign suppliers without the knowledge of Schmitz or other candidates.

When one of those suppliers later admitted to secretly funneling $10,000 to Butcher-Forde, it said it did so to hide the fact the money came from a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

Butcher-Forde was working for that Democrat at the same time it was handling the Republican gubernatorial campaign of former Fullerton Assemblyman John Briggs.

But it was the association with Howard Jarvis that brought Forde and Butcher their highest acclaim, and loudest criticism.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Judge Smallwood said Forde, Butcher and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. deceived the public during a fundraising campaign in order to pay $1.5 million to Butcher and Forde.

“A frustrated Smallwood wrote that, although he found the conduct of Butcher and Forde ‘reprehensible’ and believed they had ‘facilitated’ campaign reporting violations by the Jarvis group, they could not be held liable under the Political Reform Act,” the Times reported.

The political consultants had sent out fundraising appeals saying the Jarvis group was in debt when it actually wasn’t. Instead, the consultants and leaders of the Jarvis group developed an unwritten agreement to pay Forde and Butcher more money and raised it with the appeal to supporters, according to the news story.

Stu Mollrich, Forde’s current partner, played a key role in writing the fund-raising letters, according to the Times, and also was severely criticized by Smallwood for engaging in “reprehensible” conduct.

Another source of Forde’s funds, according to the Times, was Doris Day’s Animal League. The actress’ activist group on behalf of pets contracted with Butcher-Forde in 1987 for a nationwide fundraising drive. Financial records showed her nonprofit wound up owing Forde and Butcher $1.7 million more than they brought in in donations, the Times reported.

And then there was the money raised from the death of Howard Jarvis.

As part of his ruling, judge Smallwood found the Jarvis group violated FPPC rules by not reporting more than $624,000 spent and $738,000 raised during a direct-mail campaign launched six days after Jarvis’ 1986 death.

It was Butcher and Forde who launched that campaign, with the support of Jarvis’ widow, Estelle. Fundraising mailers to 350,000 Jarvis supporters included a photograph of Jarvis, with a note from his widow saying she enclosed it “as a remembrance.” The photo is inscribed on the back: “In Memoriam Howard Jarvis 1903-1986.”

Jerry Zanelli, a former campaign consultant who had worked with Butcher and Forde, said at the time, “No pictures of the funeral? Well, see, that’s good taste.”

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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