Thursday, February 25, 2010 | District Attorney investigators — throughout their yearlong investigation of allegations of conflict of interest among Orange County Fair Board members and illegal lobbying by former State Senator Dick Ackerman — never knew that Ackerman’s own billing records showed him having contacts with legislators before and after key votes that put the Fairgrounds up for sale in 2009.
“We did not have the billing records and we had no probable cause to get them,” said Senior Deputy District Attorney Bill Feccia, who oversaw the investigation that cleared Fair Board members and Ackerman of any wrongdoing in October 2010.
The records are kept by the California Construction Authority and available to the public. Voice of OC obtained the records and, in a story earlier this month, detailed how they connect Ackerman to legislators during this critical period in the Fairgrounds saga.
This week, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission announced it was launching a “pro-active investigation” into Ackerman’s dealings because of the reporting in the Voice of OC story.
Nonetheless, Feccia said Wednesday that he stands behind the conclusions of his investigations. “From what I’ve seen in the press, I don’t think those conclusions have been undermined,” he said.
Questions have swirled around Ackerman and his role in the effort by Fair Board members to sell the 150-acre Costa Mesa property ever since it was first put up for sale by the Schwarzenegger administration in May 2009.
Feccia said that DA investigators concluded that Ackerman only offered informational updates to officials. Yet he declined to discuss how those conclusions were reached.
For example, he would not disclose whether legislators were interviewed for the investigation.
The Voice of OC story detailed more than a half dozen phone contacts between Ackerman and legislators, according to his own legal billing records to public agencies.
Two legislators reached by Voice of OC — State Sen. Lou Correa and State Assemblyman Jose Solorio — both said DA investigators never called them.
Other sources close to the fairgrounds sale — such as dissident fair board member David Padilla — also were surprised that investigators never called despite conducting a yearlong probe.
Shirley Grindle, a longtime Orange County open government activist who wrote the county’s campaign finance ordinance, said the holes in the DA investigation are par for the course for the administration of Tony Rackauckas.
“When it comes to investigating any other elected officials, forget it. He doesn’t do so. And if he does, it’s only to satisfy the press and it’s always halfhearted,” Grindle said.
The situation in Orange County is so bad, Grindle said, she regularly tells people with information on political corruption to avoid the DA because it is a hostile office to whistleblowers.
Feccia took issue with any inference of a subpar inquiry or of any political interference from Rackauckas with the probe. In fact, he said, he decided on his own to investigate Ackerman even though the Board of Supervisors had only asked the District Attorney’s office to look into conflict of interest issues with the Fair Board.
“I elected to look at the Ackerman complaints just because they were made in the press,” Feccia said. “He (District Attorney Tony Rackauckas) didn’t direct the investigation, I did,” Feccia said.
He added: “Tony Rackauckas didn’t have beans to do with this investigation until it was done. Professional investigators did the investigation, they pursued the evidence to where it was. I drafted the report.”
After reading it, Rackauckas only offered grammatical changes, Feccia said.
Ackerman, Feccia said, “was not the main focus of the investigation.”
Ackerman has not responded to numerous requests for an interview. And officials at the OC Fair and Event Center (which runs the annual fair through a board appointed by the governor) have never been clear about why Ackerman was hired with taxpayer dollars to “liaison” with state officials, or why his hiring was hidden through a subcontractor to the fairgrounds.
When asked directly about the Ackerman hiring, OC Fair and Event Center CEO Steve Beazley replied through a spokeswoman that “I have no time to rewind the events of the last two years, especially those related to the sale, whose outcome now rests squarely in the hands of the Governor. I would appreciate all questions and inquiries to be limited to today’s business and the planning of the future of OCFEC.”
County Supervisors Chairman Bill Campbell — one of two supervisors involved in early fairgrounds lobbying efforts in 2009 — discussed the issue after hearing about the FPPC probe.
“My sense is that it’s going to come down to the definition of what is a lobbyist,” Campbell said.
“In my dealings with Dick, he explained to me that those guys (fair board members) were interested in trying to find a way to buy the fair property. It was more informational,” Campbell said.
“I viewed him as a information conduit,” he said.
Yet Campbell also confirmed that when he suggested offering amending language to the pending bill to sell the fairgrounds, he quickly heard back from Ackerman, who was irked that he didn’t get a courtesy call from Campbell.
Campbell said that Ackerman “had been notified by somebody in the governor’s office” about his suggested legislative changes to the bill that authorized the OC fairgrounds sale.
Campbell said he doesn’t believe Ackerman violated the law.
“My simple assumption is that Dick knows the law and he follows it. I’d be surprised if it turns out otherwise.”
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