Silent Coup

Secret meetings, shady deals: Life before & after the Orange County bankruptcy

The sight of a 5-foot-3-inch, 48-year-old Mission Viejo housewife wearing a navy-blue pantsuit would not normally terrify 40 businessmen and high-ranking local-government bureaucrats. But Gail Reavis pulled off the trick at 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 20 inside the Anaheim Marriott's Grand Ballroom. It was Reavis' presence--not her size--that scared the breakfast gathering of the Orange County Business Council, a lobbying group that includes officials of such local corporate giants as the Irvine Co., George Argyros' Arnel Development, and Freedom Communications, owner of The Orange County Register. Carrying nothing more threatening than an invitation, Reavis walked into the banquet room 15 minutes before Jan M. Mittermeier--the county's most powerful unelected government official--was to give an 85-minute "special briefing" on plans for a controversial international airport at the soon-to-be-evacuated El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Reavis poured a small cup of coffee, grabbed a blueberry muffin, and sat at an unoccupied table at the rear of the room. As she waited, she thumbed through the meeting's handouts, including one lamenting that first-term Supervisor Todd Spitzer had yet to be held "accountable" for opposing the proposed airport. Her entrance had not gone unnoticed. Courtney Wiercioch, a top Mittermeier lieutenant, stood in another part of the room, chatting with bystanders. The two women momentarily locked eyes. They had met months earlier at a public meeting where Reavis voiced her opposition to the government's El Toro International Airport plan. Within minutes, a no-nonsense Julie Puentes--the business council's vice president for public relations--approached Reavis and asked her to identify herself. Puentes then abruptly walked back in Wiercioch's direction. "It was becoming obvious that they were not comfortable with me in the room," Reavis said. With a hotel representative in tow, Puentes returned and told Reavis to follow them to a hallway. According to Reavis' version of events, Puentes said, "This is an invitation-only meeting."

"Yes, I know. I have one," said Reavis. "That must be a mistake," Puentes said. "You are not on my list."Reavis showed her the invitation. A clearly legible fax stamp proved the business council had sent her the invitation two days earlier. Puentes was unmoved: "This is a private event. You represent the opposition. It is not appropriate for you to be here."

"I have an invitation, and I very much want to stay," said Reavis. "The county's CEO is going to be discussing the public's business here. What are you so afraid of me hearing? What are you people hiding?"

Puentes clasped her hands tightly and asked: "Are you going to leave with some class? Or will you need some help?"As soon as a startled Reavis left the Marriott, Mittermeier--a 23-year government employee with a base salary of $140,000--appeared behind closed doors and talked strategy with corporate lobbyists and political insiders.Reavis' experience at the Anaheim Marriott reveals how little has changed in Orange County politics since the county government's bankruptcy three years ago this month. County officials still gather in secret to plot with local corporate officials and lobbyists, still limit outside scrutiny of the public's business, still approve public subsidies of private business ventures--like the proposed El Toro International Airport. And, of course, they can do that because the same group of people are in power. You could walk into just about any meeting of county officials these days and swing a bat randomly without worrying that you might strike the innocent.

There was a moment, just after the bankruptcy, when it seemed things would turn out differently--when there might even have been a revolution in Orange County. A loss of $1.7 billion in taxpayer funds coupled with the rare, nauseating glimpse of politicians at work infuriated tens of thousands of normally apathetic citizens. A government ruled entirely by die-hard conservatives had failed and become the butt of jokes around the world. Contrite local leaders found themselves pleading for--of all things--state assistance from the then-assembly speaker, Democrat Willie Brown. Two unofficial but powerful troikas--one composed of top developers and another composed of bureaucrats, including Sheriff Brad Gates and District Attorney Michael Capizzi--proposed increasing the local sales tax, a move voters soundly rejected. To pay off the bankruptcy loss, the county eventually borrowed $800 million from Wall Street--a curious replay of the strategy that landed the county in trouble to begin with. Poll after poll showed citizens countywide overwhelmingly favored drastic, corrective government reform. A daily barrage of hate mail arrived for the supervisors. Several people spoke of lynchings--we presume figuratively. Supervisor Gaddi Vasquez--the Latino face of the new Republican party--went suddenly silent, ultimately resigned, and disappeared from the harsh glare of formal politics. His voluble colleague Tom Riley served out his term with a whimper. Roger Stanton had been talking about a run for U.S. Congress; he's said nothing of that ambition since. Harriett Wieder vanished. The bankruptcy seems to have turned William Steiner, once the county's most obvious defender of abused and neglected children, into a political eunuch, incapable of pointing out even the most glaring deficiencies in the county's Children and Youth Services Agency.

As frightened as the supervisors were of public reaction, their anxiety did not surpass that of the power brokers--influential real-estate developers and lobbyists who, for decades, quietly guided county government behind-the-scenes and directed millions from sweetheart deals into their own pockets--the multibillion-dollar toll roads being the most obvious example. An angry citizenry demanding answers and real change threatened to unravel the staggeringly lucrative and cozy relationship between business and government. The Register reported that developer Argyros told Irvine Co. developer Gary Hunt: if we don't handle the situation, we're going to suffer. The power brokers skillfully diverted public outrage away from their own corrupting influence, defining the terms of reform debate and putting their allies in key government posts. It was a silent coup. The people's revolution never had a chance.

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