‘Anonymous’ $50,000 Donation to County Sparks Debate Over Public’s Right to Know

COUNTY OF ORANGE

The archery range at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley.

An “anonymous” $50,000 donation to the county to improve an archery range at Mile Square Park is sparking debate over whether government agencies should keep donors’ names secret and whether it could become a way for people with business before the county to secretly curry favor with the elected officials who make decisions.

The donor’s identity was not disclosed to the public when the county Board of Supervisors voted to accept the money on Oct. 31, with a county staff report simply describing the person as “an anonymous donor” who was giving “in the name of” others. The funds would benefit archers at the Fountain Valley park, which is the largest county park in Supervisor Andrew Do’s district.

Do and Supervisor Shawn Nelson argued in favor of accepting it as an anonymous donation, with Nelson saying he believes “maybe there’s too much transparency” and that revealing donors’ names limits their willingness to give.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, however, said the public had a right to know who the donor was, and that large anonymous donations could be used to try to influence decisions the supervisors make.

The supervisors voted 4-1, with Spitzer opposing, to have the county accept the anonymous money, and the donor’s identity initially remained secret. Voting in favor were Do, Nelson, Michelle Steel, and Lisa Bartlett.

But after repeated inquiries from Voice of OC and others, county officials disclosed the donor’s name a week after the supervisors voted to accept the money. On Nov. 7, the county released a partly-redacted image of the $50,000 check, which blacked-out the donor’s bank account number and address, but revealed his name.

While the check is dated Aug. 29, a county spokeswoman said it wasn’t delivered to the county until Nov. 6, the day before it was publicly released.

And who is the mystery donor? Based on the check image released by the county, it’s Kenneth E. Fait, a wealthy businessman who tried to buy the Orange County fairgrounds from the state government in 2010, through a company he runs called Facilities Management West.

As of the same year, his family trust also owned the California High Patrol’s headquarters in Sacramento, which the CHP leased from Fait and his family, according to the Orange County Register.

The Fait Family Trust and its companies “are worth in the hundreds of millions” of dollars, with investments in “oil refineries near Bakersfield, mobile home parks in the Western U.S.,” and technology companies, the Register reported in 2010.

It’s unknown if any of Fait’s companies currently has a business connection with the county or is seeking one. One of Fait’s companies did business with the county last year, according to county officials, though the nature of the business is unclear. More information about the county’s business with Tricor Energy, LLC, which Fait co-manages, wasn’t available Friday.

Efforts to reach Fait for comment, through calls to his businesses and his lead attorney in a lawsuit over the fairgrounds sale, were unsuccessful.

Fait gave another major gift last year, donating 200 acres of land in Riverside County to a Native American tribe to build up to 1,200 affordable homes. Fait and his company won’t receive any financial compensation under their agreement to donate the land, according to the tribe’s chairman.

“It’s totally philanthropic, because there isn’t any part of the agreement where it’s going to have a quid pro quo,” said Thomas Tortez, tribal chairman of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, during a February news conference announcing the gift.

In Orange County, Fait and his family’s business interests have intersected with the county Board of Supervisors at least once.

A real estate company Fait ran with his brother, Mesa Orchard Associates LLC, needed county approval in the mid-2000s for a luxury 33-home development they planned to build in an unincorporated area, according to county records. The development, Newport Palisades, received land use approvals from a county committee in 2006 and the Board of Supervisors in 2008.

Spokespeople for the county and its independently-elected financial watchdog, Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery, said they were looking into any current business connections after questions from Voice of OC.

In a letter about his decision to release the donor’s name, Woolery said the public deserved to know who was donating the funds.

“While as an individual taxpayer, I appreciate the generosity of the individual(s) offering such a donation to the County, as the Taxpayer Watchdog, I believe the public interest outweighs the donor’s request for anonymity in this case, and further, that the California Public Records Act does not permit the County to honor this request for anonymity,” Woolery wrote in a letter to county supervisors last week.

Similar to election fundraising and nonprofit groups controlled by elected officials, Woolery added, “donations such as these have the potential to curry favor with officials while evading the spirit of various ethics rules and limits.”

(Click here to read Woolery’s letter about the donation.)

Both Woolery and county CEO Frank Kim’s office released copies of the check last week that included the donor’s name.

It would be difficult to know if Fait is doing business with the county, since the county’s records don’t typically show who owns the businesses it does business with.

Additionally, the state agencies that do have records about who runs businesses in California – the Franchise Tax Board and Secretary of State’s Office – say they do not have the ability to search a person’s name to see the businesses they operate.

When the donation acceptance appeared on the Board of Supervisors’ meeting agenda for Oct. 31, the staff report simply said the contribution would be from a single “anonymous donor,” who is providing the money “in the name of Ralph Turney III and Turner’s Outdoorsman, a hunting, sporting and fishing company with stores throughout California.”

Before the county revealed Fait as the donor, Voice of OC attempted to contact Turney at three phone numbers listed under his name, but the numbers were disconnected. Voice of OC also left voicemails for the retail chain’s CEO, Bryce Harris, who didn’t return the messages.

During discussion of the donation at the Oct. 31 meeting, before the donor’s identity was revealed, Spitzer questioned if it’s “illegal” for the county to accept anonymous donations.

“Everything I’ve done in government, you have to trace the acceptance of dollars to a donor. It’s just – it goes with the fact of life of government. And so when I see we’re taking 50,000 [dollars] from an anonymous donor, I’m like, that’s generous – I don’t question the benevolence, necessarily – but it makes me incredibly uncomfortable ‘cause I don’t know the source,” Spitzer said.

He asked what the county’s policy is for anonymous donations. Kim, the county CEO, said he didn’t know and would have to research the issue and report back to the board.

Spitzer then painted a scenario in which a marijuana growing company wants to operate in Orange County’s rural canyons, so they donate a large dollar amount to Irvine Regional Park anonymously.

“It’s anonymous, no one knows where it’s coming from. But maybe somebody winks and nods and [says] ‘Hey Supervisor Spitzer, we just gave $100,000 you know, we’re gonna spruce up Irvine Regional Park,’ ” Spitzer said.

“The public has no right to know that marijuana cash is coming into the county, and we’re counting it, we’re depositing it, it stays anonymous, and I don’t have any responsibility or anything to trace where that money comes from?”

In the case of the Mile Square Park donation, Spitzer said at the supervisors’ meeting before the county decided to make the donor’s name public, “it sounds on its face legitimate, but I have no idea ‘cause I can’t go behind it’” to see who the donor is.

Stacy Blackwood, director of the county parks department, told the supervisors county parks staff “oftentimes” receive requests from people who want to make an anonymous donation.

“Rarely is it in an amount like this, so we’re very pleased with that, obviously,” Blackwood said. “In this case, the donor’s representatives approached our parks staff at Mile Square Park, alluding to the fact that the donor had an interest in archery, and wanted to see his money go to improvement of the archery range at Mile Square Park.”

“When we were told he wanted to remain anonymous for public purposes, we did advise him that when that check was deposited with the county, it may be subject to public record requests.”

Spitzer interrupted her, saying “it’s not” that the payment record “may be” subject to public disclosure. Once the county deposits the payment, it gets handled by the county Auditor Controller’s Office and it’s a public record, Spitzer said.

“That’s correct,” Blackwood replied.

“We need to be really clear with donors,” Spitzer said, so donors don’t think they’re donating anonymously when it’s not actually anonymous.

He said he’d prefer the county CEO look at how the county deals with anonymous donations, and return to the supervisors with procedures and protocols, “so we could ensure who this is, and…have a paper trail.”

Nelson saw it differently, saying some people aren’t seeking credit when they donate to government agencies.

“There are a lot of people that give anonymously. Not everyone that contributes, or that gives, demands attention,” Nelson said in response to Spitzer.

People buy property through a proxy “every day,” Nelson said, pointing to movie stars who don’t want people to know who owns their properties.

“You know, a lot of people – myself included – sort of believe in the idea that maybe there’s too much transparency, and this whole idea of trying to out everyone because want to give to a cause, or back a certain point of view, actually limits people from giving to things.”

“What do we need a policy for this for?” Nelson added. “Why do I need bureaucrats running around vetting a bunch of stuff?”

Nelson then turned to face Spitzer, telling him, “some people want to give, [and] maybe they don’t want you calling them and questioning their motives. Maybe, by the statements Supervisor Spitzer you just made, it suggests [to] people that you would do that. I don’t know.”

“This is a very common, normal circumstance. And [Spitzer] just made up a bunch of circumstances that don’t exist,” and “probably” will never exist, Nelson added.

Do, the supervisor who represents Mile Square Park and the residents around it, said Spitzer raised some “legitimate concerns” he could propose supervisors consider in the future, but that it “doesn’t apply” to the Mile Square Park donation.

That’s because the $50,000 donation “is identified with certain individuals that we can go back and [try] to find out if we have [such a] desire,” Do said. In this case, he said, it’s “not completely anonymous.”

County parks staff say they plan to use the donation “to replace existing targets, purchase and/or repair archery equipment used for the free archery classes hosted by OC Parks and purchase additional storage containers to better organize equipment.”

Many types of donations that benefit politicians are required to be disclosed, such as campaign contributions and donations to nonprofit groups that were solicited by elected officials.

But when it comes to donations to government that benefit an elected official’s district, it’s unclear if state law allows or prohibits the donor’s identity to be kept secret.

Generally speaking, the source of payments to local government are a public record under state law.

The office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is the state’s top law enforcement officer, declined through a spokesperson to say whether local governments can legally accept anonymous donations and withhold the donor’s identity from the public.

The Attorney General’s office “cannot provide legal opinion,” the spokesperson said in an emailed response.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.