Padilla: Scott Baugh Was at Center of Rigged Sweetheart Deal To Sell OC Fairgrounds

I’m writing this bring to the voters’ attention Scott Baugh’s involvement in the OC Fair sale scandal and the near loss of this beloved institution to a group of wealthy, politically connected land developers.

Why Mr. Baugh, or anyone for that matter, would advocate the sale of the great OC Fair is baffling. However, what is clear are the many brazen unethical and possibly illegal actions taken by him and a group of well connected politicos, which are only known to us today because of determined efforts by a small group of citizens, news reporting by the Voice of OC and the Daily Pilot, and the final report of the Fair Sale Review Committee, which included a referral of its findings to the Orange County District Attorney.

In 2009 Mr. Baugh and members of the OC Fair Board, led by lobbyist Dave Ellis, initiated a scheme to sell the 150 acres of land that is the OC Fairgrounds, first to a non-profit group that was formed and controlled by the then Fair Board, and later when that failed, to a politically-connected land developer. The final bid was $100 million or more below fair market value which would have been a huge financial windfall to all involved in the scheme had the courts not intervened to stop the sale.

Scott Baugh was hired to make it happen.

For the sale to even begin, the State legislature and Governor passed and signed a law to enable the sale. Mr. Baugh, through Platinum Advisors, and Former State Senator Dick Ackerman, through Nossaman LLP, were both paid for lobbying services to get this legislation passed, putting his GOP contacts to work to get the job done.

Despite two brief and incomplete investigations by the Orange County District Attorney, and a scathing report from the Fair Sale Review Committee, the scope of Mr. Baugh’s role here was never properly investigated and the full breadth of his actions have not been revealed to the public.

What is known is that Scott Baugh’s lobby firm was paid $50,000 by the OC Fair in a manner that was later called a “laundered” payment in the Fair Sale Review Commission’s final report. Every effort was made to hide from the public the $50,000 payment.  It only came to light because I persisted for over a year with the CEO of our Board in requesting all contracting information for Mr. Baugh and Ackerman. As a Board Member and Chair of the Board’s finance committee, I had a right to see this information. Someone involved with this scheme was trying to hide from the public and Mr. Baugh’s involvement and his receipt of illegal payments. Had they come to light, it would have made the completion of the overall scheme even more difficult.

The payments to Mr. Baugh were characterized as laundered because the OC Fair went to extraordinary means to hide Mr. Baugh’s and Mr. Ackerman’s involvement by paying them through an existing contractor. This was illegal and violated numerous State contracting laws. They also did this so Mr. Baugh and Ackerman could deny they were under contract by the OC Fair or involved in the effort to sell the fairgrounds. This “laundered” arrangement also allowed the Fair to shield their involvement from the numerous Public Records requests seeking information about the Board’s finances and activities.

Although hidden from public view at the time, Baugh and Ackerman’s influence efforts were successful, and the legislature authorized the fairgrounds sale, slipping the language into one of those Omnibus budget bills that no one likes because they are often used to advance legislators pet projects.

With the sale authorized, the State solicited bids for the fairgrounds property and the Fair Board group led by Dave Ellis moved forward with their proposal to buy it. It drew immediate scrutiny from the State Attorney General’s office, which also acted as the Board’s attorney since it was a state agency whose members, myself included, are appointed by the Governor.

Acting as the Board’s counsel, the Attorney General’s office warned that their involvement in the non-profit making a bid for the fairgrounds constituted a felony conflict of interest. The Attorney General pointed out the obvious, that the Board as Trustee for the property could not act as both seller and buyer, an arrangement that most anyone should quickly understand was unethical.

The Board ignored the warning and continued to advance its bid. Convinced that the Board was in jeopardy of violating the law, the Attorney General fired his client and distanced his office from the Board. Ultimately, the Board’s gambit fell through, as did a second effort to sell the property to a politically connected land developer. The courts ultimately intervened on behalf of a group of concerned citizens and halted the sale. In 2016, with the support of Governor Brown, the legislature acted to prohibit the sale of the fairgrounds.

When I first learned Mr. Baugh was running for office again I was shocked. I was simply surprised to find that Mr. Baugh was still allowed to do business in the County after his involvement in the sale fiasco. Given what I saw of his egregious judgement and ethical lapses in his involvement in the OC Fair sale fiasco, how could he believe the voters would trust him to watch out for them, he should be representing the public’s interest in any manner, especially in the role of an U.S. Congressman?

I am sure Mr. Baugh will respond by saying he did nothing wrong and it was all investigated, or whatever is the latest dodge from politicians this week. But, because he was closely associated with many at the center of this plan, like Dave Ellis and and other Orange County big money interests, he had to know or at least should have known of the improprieties involved.

But before voters let any excuses or rationalizations pass, I believe Mr. Baugh owes the public answers to some of these very basic questions:

• Why was your firm paid $50,000 in such a highly unusual manner, in a way that was later characterized as “laundered” payments?

• What work did your firm do for the OC Fair for this $50,000 and what were your deliverables and proof you actually did this or any work?

• Who on at the OC Fair contracted Platinum, who did you work with and where is the contract you signed?

• If you believe everything was legal, why were you paid through an existing contractor (LSA) and not directly? Did you not find that highly unusual since you didn’t work for them, or ever work with them?

As a Board Member who uncovered these seemingly illegal and certainly rule violating payments, and as a voter in this district, before I make my voting decision, I would sure like to know answers these questions. And I ask again, why, after this murky affair why is Mr. Baugh still doing business in this county and why is he even being considered for any public office?

David Padilla
, Orange County Fair Board Trustee (2005-2010)

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

For a different view on this issue, consider: 

Ackerman: Baugh Had No Role on OC Fairgrounds Failed Privatization Effort

Ellis: Padilla’s Facts Are Wrong About Baugh Role in OC Fairgrounds Privatization