Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 | Peter Buffa, a former public member of the Orange County Transportation Authority, had a surprise for board member Bill Campbell in June when Campbell and two other board members traveled to New York.
The trip was the annual OCTA round of meetings where investment houses, seeking the chance to underwrite millions of dollars in OCTA bonds, wine and dine board members while board members work to ensure the transportation bonds are highly rated.
Minutes before Campbell walked into the year’s first meeting, he learned that Buffa, who just weeks before had been a colleague on the OCTA board, would be sitting on the opposite side of the table as one of the representatives of Barclays Capital, an investment house that does business with the agency.
“I didn’t know about it when I was heading back there [New York],” said Campbell, who is also chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
Carolyn Cavecche, mayor of Orange and another OCTA board member, also said she had no idea that when Buffa abruptly resigned from the OCTA board on May 12, he was immediately going to work for Barclays. Cavecche learned that Buffa would be representing the investment house only a “couple of days” before her trip.
“I had no idea he had been approached by anyone or was looking,” Cavecche said of Buffa’s sudden resignation from the 17-member OCTA board.
Had it been Campbell or Cavecche making such a quick jump from a public agency to a firm that profits from taxpayer dollars, it would have been a direct violation of California’s “revolving door” law. The law prohibits former elected officials from contacting their former colleagues to influence a decision for 12 months after leaving office.
The intent of the 2005 law, according to a legislative analysis, is to “address situations whereby former elected officers and other officials return to represent clients who have business before or are seeking to influence policy decisions made by their former agencies.”
But since Buffa wasn’t an elected official but one of two public members on the OCTA board, the law does not apply to him. “There’s no prohibition,” said Ken Smart, OCTA’s lawyer.
But there should be, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. Had Buffa served on a state commission, he would have been covered by the law even if he wasn’t an elected official, Stern said.
“I was really surprised the law doesn’t cover it [public members of local boards],” he said.
“This is a perfect example,” of why the law exists,” said Stern. “They shouldn’t be using past contacts to get future business.”
Local agencies, including OCTA, can close the loophole themselves simply by adding public members to the “revolving door” rules, Stern said.
Beyond his quick switch, there are questions about Buffa’s extensive travel, paid for by OCTA, in the weeks leading up to and after his departure.
In fact, according to OCTA expense reports, he still was using the public agency’s credit card when he paid $65 for a Yellow Cab to take him to Los Angeles International Airport on May 17, four days after his resignation became official.
Buffa, who owned his own media consulting company and served on the Costa Mesa City Council from 1986 to 1998, including four years as mayor, didn’t return calls seeking comment. A Barclays spokesman said “the meeting was not a formal solicitation for new business. Rather it was an informal update on the state of the markets.”
But one reason colleagues were surprised by his departure is that in the months leading up to his resignation Buffa traveled on behalf of OCTA more than any other board member.
His January itinerary included New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. In February he was back in Washington, and in May, according to OCTA credit card records, he returned to Orange County May 11 from a nine-day trip that included Washington, D.C., and New York.
The next day, May 12, he announced he was leaving OCTA, according to spokeswoman Laura Schepler. “He resigned on May 12 verbally, and his last day was Friday, May 13,” she said.
According to board member Jerry Amante and others, Buffa spent so much time traveling because he was helping Rep. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) draft legislation the transit agency hoped would help it win quicker approval for major transportation construction projects.
Amante, who also made the June trip to New York to meet with investment and bond rating firms, said he was expecting Buffa to be there because his former colleague had informed him during a prior phone conversation.
“He said, ‘I’ll see you in New York,’” Amante recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, you will?’ “
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the length of time Peter Buffa served as mayor of Costa Mesa. We regret the error.