Few people passing through the scenic trails know it, but a chain-link fence overlooking Upper Newport Bay marks a battlefront.
A wealthy political power broker in Newport Beach came close to buying the small plot of land within that fence from the County of Orange last year, before a full-blown civic push to stop the whole thing gained more than a thousand signatures and slammed the sale’s brakes.
And the land was slated to sell for $13,000 – a price tag many say was undervalued by a county-approved appraisal that the well-known GOP influencer and would-be buyer, Buck Johns, paid for.
The OC Grand Jury voiced concerns this month over the ineffectual deal for nearly releasing public control of a plot of parkland the county once declared to be protected natural open space in 2003.
The panel, along with years of email correspondence between Johns and county officials which grand jurors didn’t go into but Voice of OC reviewed, put a 20-page microscope on the extent to which the deal was seemingly strategized and pushed by top county administrators.
Namely, the office of former county supervisor and current Congresswoman Michelle Steel intervened in Johns’ favor, reads the June 9 Grand Jury report, which didn’t name Steel but referred to her as the “then-County Supervisor for District 2 [spanning the area of the land parcel in question].”
“Steps were taken to sell the land with no restrictions despite the predated covenants and restrictions and without regard to the Board of Supervisors and the California State Land Commission’s resolutions that the land shall be held in trust under the stewardship of the State’s Department of Fish and Game,” the report reads.
But a number of public steps and signoffs still needed to happen to make any deal happen.
And in June 2020, some high-ranking County of Orange staff were thinking ahead – brainstorming ways to soften the anticipated public blowback prior to the sale’s first public hearing on Jan. 7, 2021.
It was all documented in emails about moving the land transaction forward, through exchanges between Johns and other high-ranking county leaders, going back to the year 2019.
A ‘Fine Cooperation’
The sale came close to being finalized until Steel’s successor, OC Supervisor Katrina Foley, single-handedly pulled the item and OC residents stopped it through civic action in 2021.
Foley obtained the emails between Johns and county staff during her office’s research on the sale and shared them with Voice of OC this month, shortly after the Grand Jury report was released. Read all of them here.
A June 2020 emailed status update from former OC Parks Director Stacy Blackwood predicted the “pushback” the land transaction “would receive from this constituency during the park abandonment process” and suggested, “that Mr. Johns consider funding the relocation” of an informal horse riding trail that the land transaction would impact.
Blackwood was writing to Arie Dana, Steel’s Chief of Staff at the county then and in the U.S. Capitol now. Included on the chain was the county’s chief real estate officer, Thomas Miller, as well as other county parks staff.
The former parks director left the county on Sept. 30, 2021, said County of Orange spokesperson Molly Nichelson in an emailed response to questions on Monday.
Nichelson, asked whether the level of cooperation Johns received from county officials was standard for requests to purchase county-owned land, said county staff “endeavors to be as cooperative as possible with members of the public making inquiries regarding County real property, whoever they may be.”
“The County received inquiries about its property on a regular basis and respond to each one based on the specific facts of the inquiry and the real property at issue. County staff is always cooperative and professional with any member of the public, regardless of who they are,” Nichelson wrote.
She added, “This abandonment process was handled by County staff no differently than any other County land transaction or abandonment process.”
Grand Jurors described this protocol another way.
“In the majority of cases,” reads the panel’s report, the county is “not interested in relinquishing park property and no action is taken” whenever “CEO Real Estate receives a proposal from a private citizen to purchase County park land.”
This was initially the case when Johns, whose home abuts the property and overlooks the Newport Beach Back Bay, approached CEO Real Estate and the OC Parks Commission to purchase parcel APN 439-051-14, the panel wrote. “However, after the intervention and active support of the then-County Supervisor for District 2, the homeowner’s proposal moved forward.”
Blackwood, who didn’t respond to phone and text messages seeking comment Monday, was succeeded by current OC Parks Director Tom Starnes the day after she left, Nichelson said.
Johns also didn’t respond to Voice of OC messages seeking comment through the office of his company, Inland Energy, or through email.
He communicated directly with county staff leading up to the near-sale, emails show.
In one May 2019 email to Steel’s district representative, Timothy Whitacre, Johns praised the “fine cooperation from Supervisor Steel’s staff ……. and the professionals of the County Real Estate team.”
Another email from Johns a year later, on May 7, 2020, points to a meeting he had that afternoon with Blackwood of OC Parks, Miller of OC Real Estate, and Arie of Steel’s office.
“… genuinely appreciated the ‘education’ on OC Real Estate this afternoon. 2001 must have been a very interesting year for OC publicly owned property!!” Johns wrote.
“Your ‘creativity’ at plotting a path….that will get us ‘where we want to go’… and ‘minimize’ the many ‘pitfalls’!….is not only much appreciated…..its ‘needed’!” he added.
More emails were obtained separately through a Public Records Act request by Susan Skinner, a nearby neighbor to Johns, who circulated the petition to stop the county’s park abandonment process and thus, the sale.
Skinner provided Voice of OC with proof of the official receipt of the county records.
In one of the emails Skinner got, Johns told county staff he intended not to respond to a Voice of OC reporter’s questions about the transaction request.
“I received this email today …….. and pass it along. I do not plan on responding to Mr Pho’s questions. Again, appreciate your efforts ….. and looking forward to …… hopefully …… completing this project in the near term,” he wrote to Robyn Quinlan, a real property agent for the county, on April 26, 2021.
A day later, he caught word that the county responded to Voice of OC questions on their end.
“Robyn …… I understand Mr Pho directed questions to the county …… and responses were generated. Can you send me a copy? Crazy times!!” Johns wrote on April 27 that year.
And according to the emails that Foley shared, Steel’s office was in contact with county staff several times about Johns’ request, often seeking updates on the land transaction effort.
Now Steel’s a member of Congress, one whose 2020 election cycle campaign saw direct contributions from Johns, the man who once turned tennis courts into receptions for vice presidents and hosted presidential hopefuls at his home, as detailed by the Los Angeles Times in the 1990s and the OC Register in the later aughts.
Steel, in a brief Monday phone call with a Voice of OC reporter, likened her assistance of Johns’ request to the type of assistance she would provide any constituent.
She also seemed to attribute much of the sale’s facilitation to OC Parks.
“Why don’t you contact the Parks Department and ask them,” Steel said.
Asked why, then, her staff kept asking for updates and communicating with OC Parks about the sale, according to the records Foley’s office shared, Steel said she was unaware of the emails being described, which are viewable here.
“Please talk to the (OC Parks) Department,” she said.
‘That Goddamn Fence’
After the sale halted, the county got calls and pressure to remove the fence which had been raised around the parcel. But a letter from Johns’ lawyers threatened legal action.
So, during a closed-door meeting in 2021, county supervisors directed staff to leave the fence up.
To critics, the chain-link epitomized privatizing public assets. Taking it down would largely be for symbolic and aesthetic reasons. It had also come to symbolize, to the same people, the type of government access granted through power and influence.
“By allowing the fence to surround the very property that could not be sold, that parcel has been inappropriately ceded to private use, and the fence should be removed to restore that property to its designated status as public trust land,” Grand Jurors wrote in their report.
“Not only was he (Johns) able to use special favors or political influence to have the property released to be sold, but he had enough influence to ensure the fence wasn’t taken down,” Skinner said in a Friday phone interview. “It’s just a huge frustration. It symbolizes that the little guy does not get heard.”
Skinner called it “the epitome of inappropriate political influence.”
“If it is the last thing I accomplish in my life, it will be to get that goddamn fence down.”