Conflict of Interest Allegations Dog San Juan Planning Commissioner

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San Juan Capistrano Planning Commissioner Rob Williams has spent the last several months fighting conflict of interest allegations surrounding a hotel project involving Hollywood producer and writer Steve Oedekerk.

Williams has been unable to shake lingering suspicions that he’s too close to the owner of a proposed hotel that would compete with Oedekerk’s project. And now City Councilman Derek Reeve has scheduled a council vote Tuesday night to remove Williams from the commission over those concerns.

At the center of the conflict of interest dispute are a proposed 102-room boutique hotel, known as Hotel Capistrano, that would be built downtown; and the Historic Town Center Master Plan, which could include restrictions on the hotel. The hotel would be built on land owned by Oedekerk.

Then there is another proposed hotel project, known as the Mission Inn, that is also located downtown. Williams has financial ties to the Mission Inn development manager Dan Friess, and agreed to recuse himself from voting on the project.

However, Williams insists on voting on both Oedekerk’s hotel project and the Historic Town Center Master Plan, despite the allegations. And he says the state’s political watchdog that enforces conflict of interest laws has given him the OK to vote.

But that’s not the whole picture.

The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) at first cleared Williams to vote on the city’s Historic Town Center Master Plan, even though it would impact both Oedekerk’s hotel and the project he has ties to.

The FPPC cleared Williams based on a set of facts he gave the agency. But local resident Tom Ostensen also filed a complaint with the FPPC outlining a series of facts and financial ties that Ostensen alleged would disqualify Williams from voting.

The FPPC launched an investigation based on Ostensen’s complaint and found that Williams didn’t properly disclose income from his San Clemente-based architectural firm, Studio 6 Architects. However, the agency did not find enough evidence to determine that Williams violated conflict of interest laws.

FPPC commissioners were scheduled to fine Williams $400 for the omission at their April 21 meeting. But that wasn’t the end for Williams.

Oedekerk – whose credits include films like Bruce Almighty, the Nutty Professor and Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls — wrote a letter to the FPPC that became the basis for yet another complaint detailing still more ties that would allegedly disqualify Williams from voting. The FPPC delayed the fine so it could investigate the new information.

Williams’ Connections

In first seeking advice from the FPPC, Williams claimed his financial ties boil down to this – Williams’ architectural firm Studio 6 had worked for Friess Development Group, which was the general contractor on a historic building in town known as the Egan House, owned by Bill Griffith.

Williams was also part of a group– which also includes Ken Friess, father of Dan Friess from Friess Development Group — that sued to prevent a previous project on Oedekerk’s land from going through. The project as then conceived was scrapped, so the suit became moot.

Furthermore, Griffith, his wife and two children donated $500 to Williams’ unsuccessful 2014 campaign for the San Juan Capistrano City Council.

It was based on this information that the FPPC cleared Williams to vote on the Historic Town Center Master Plan. According to a Jan. 20 letter from the agency, Williams was found not to have a financial interest in Griffith’s projects because Williams’ company was only a subcontractor and worked directly for Friess Development Group. And campaign contributions are generally exempt from conflict of interest rules/laws.

Williams would only have a financial interest in Griffith’s project if Griffith had any control over the management or policies of Friess Development Group, the FPPC letter states. The FPPC found no evidence to indicate that was the case.

Whether Williams has such a financial interest is key because Griffith’s hotel could be seen as a competitor to Oedekerk’s hotel project. The Historic Town Center Master Plan would affect both projects.

Oedekerk’s new complaint, submitted last month, contends that the FPPC wasn’t fully aware of the depth of the connections between Williams and Griffith. According to Oedekerk’s complaint, Griffith has “enormous power” over the management, policies and direction of Friess Development.

As evidence, Oedekerk’s complaint rattles off nine different ventures and businesses connected to Griffith where Friess is listed as having some role, ranging from property manager, applicant and development manager, among others. Oedekerk claims that in press releases, Griffith announces a project and Friess typically “proceeds to work, meet and actively implement these announcements and declarations.”

The FPPC had also found that Williams’ vote on the Historic Town Center Master Plan would not materially affect Williams’ source of income because conceivably any business in the development industry could be impacted. But Oedekerk says the FPPC underestimates how deeply involved Friess is in development in the area.

Williams has recused himself from votes on Griffith’s project – because of Friess’ role as development manager — but not Oedekerk’s competing hotel, Oedekerk’s complaint alleges.

In an interview with Voice of OC, Oedekerk said what he found most puzzling was the fact that Williams insists on participating in decisions where there’s at least the perception of a conflict.

“When a person recuses himself, it’s not an admission of guilt, they recuse themselves so it might not look like they’re doing something… to me the easiest and best thing is to recuse themselves a long time ago,” Oedekerk said. “Lots of people are puzzled and confused as to why he’s still there, unless he’s there to stop, deter or lengthen out the process.”

Ball in City Council’s Court

Reeve is among those who share Oedekerk’s opinion. In his memo to the council, Reeve writes that Williams has refused to recuse himself despite being asked.

“Since Mr. Williams will not recuse himself from the [Historic Town Center Master Plan] and hotel project review, the integrity of these projects will be called into question and expose the city to legal challenges,” Reeve wrote. “It is imperative that the process be open, fair, and without any appearance of impropriety or bias.”

Williams contends that the FPPC has cleared him to vote and that he can make an unbiased decision. He described himself as a commissioner who does lots of homework on projects before he makes decisions, and he said he’s abided by requests to recuse himself on other projects where he agreed there was a conflict of interest, but he has to “draw a line.”

“There’s only controversy in their eyes, not my eyes,” Williams said. “There’s a point where you say no, and that’s where I am right now. You gotta draw a line sometime, and this happens to be the one.”

Williams also said he’s not necessarily opposed to Oedekerk’s new hotel proposal, despite concerns he had with the previous project.

“First glance it looks like he’s made amazing progress on this new hotel compared to one he submitted years ago called Urban Village,” Williams said.

Oedekerk says Williams and Griffith are close, and points to the campaign contributions and a council meeting where Griffith and Williams sit next to each other and leave together during a discussion on a decision that would affect Oedekerk’s project.

Griffith has also expressed interest in buying Oedekerk’s property if he can’t build a hotel.

“This whole thing is like the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Mr. Potter wants to own and control the real estate in the town but SJC is not meant to become Pottersville,” Oedekerk wrote in an email to Voice of OC.

Griffith didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Williams claims he rarely speaks to Griffith.

In an email to Voice of OC, Reeve emphasized the appearance of a conflict and said the issue would taint the City Council.

“If the city council fails to fulfill its duty and remove Williams, assumptions of unfairness, bias and favoritism shall hang like a dark cloud over this council, all to the detriment of our residents,” Reeve wrote.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled local resident Tom Ostensen’s name. We regret the error.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek