Life of Riley

Questioning the canonization of former supervisor Tom Riley

Faced with image-scarring revelations about Ronald Reagan's dubious ethics and competence in 1986, the president's worried National Security Advisor John Poindexter astutely observed, "We have some tidying up to do." In Orange County last week, the Feb. 19 death of Thomas F. Riley, 85, caused the local establishment's real-estate developers, politicians and reporters to tidy up in the form of a public-relations blitz. The result? A hastily written hagiography for the concrete-loving former county supervisor from Newport Beach. A "visionary," editorialized Orange County Register reporters. "His word was as good as gold." "He was the most honest person I've ever known in politics," said former Irvine Mayor Bill Vardoulis.

"He was a man of great integrity," Times OC reporter Jean Pasco said on KOCE's Real Orange. "No one ever faulted his integrity.""Never in his life would he do anything that was dishonest," promised former Supervisor Marian Bergeson."He was honest," offered county Recorder Gary Granville, "but it was the depth of his honesty."

"Unquestioned integrity," said mysterious Irvine Co. billionaire Donald Bren, the developer behind Riley's two decades in public office. It was odd that not a single anecdote of Riley's highly touted honesty emerged in nearly six pages of Times and Register obituaries. Pesky supporting details apparently had no place in the torrent of sentimentality. Of course, also absent from the tributes was the fact that Riley's public office was an ethical cesspool. The supervisor was not bothered that one of his taxpayer-paid aides was forced to resign for secretly taking a Hawaiian vacation from a developer and that another--current Laguna Niguel Councilman Mark Goodman--accepted 31 developer-paid meals in 1989.

"If I didn't like it, I'd stop it," Riley said after the revelations. The developers were elated with such remarks. It was no surprise that Bren would say in 1993, "I think Tom Riley is a wonderful guy." Questioning the canonization in progress of a cooling dead politician isn't a popular thing to do, but it is necessary. The local establishment and its minions are determined to create a bogus consensus about Riley's "public service."

Some of the drooling was deserved: he served the country admirably in World War II and generously supported numerous charities such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the March of Dimes. Much of the hymn singing, however, was unforgivably preposterous. Consider this unattributed line in a Times news story: "Riley's attention to the nuts and bolts of office holding was legendary." Say what? It was, in fact, as chairman of the Board of Supervisors that Riley was asleep at the helm when Orange County lost $1.7 billion, causing the world's largest municipal bankruptcy. It was Riley who copied Reagan's overdelegation of authority and couldn't be bothered to ask a single probing question about how county Treasurer Bob Citron was investing taxpayer dollars. It was Riley who said just before the bankruptcy, "I don't know how in the hell [Citron] does it, but he makes us all look good." Granville complained that it was "a tragedy that the bankruptcy happened days before [Riley] retired" in 1994. No, it was perfectly fitting. It's not politically correct in Orange County to remind everyone that Riley's utter incompetence will cost local citizens about an extra $60 million per year for 30 years. Which is why Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer chose instead to say, "His legacy is wonderful." Longtime Times Metro reporter Jerry Hicks wrote: "How could you not love Thomas F. Riley? . . . He was a friend to all of us in Orange County."The most inadvertently accurate quote came from fellow bankruptcy-tainted Supervisor Roger Stanton, who said, "The prayers of those he benefited [my emphasis] will help ensure that he gets a front-row seat when he is ushered into heaven."

Decades ago, chamber of commerce types used to utter the slogan "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA." Today in Orange County, the power brokers would have us believe that what is good for the Irvine Co. is good for everyone. Above all else, Riley was the Irvine Co.'s man. Through then-Governor Reagan, the Irvine Co. helped secure Riley an appointment to the Board of Supervisors in 1974. They funded his subsequent campaigns. They partied with him at exclusive Newport Beach hotels and restaurants. They advised him behind-the-scenes. They wanted a modernized John Wayne Airport, three toll roads, and the unofficial domination of county government. And--regardless of the negative impact--Riley never let them down. According to Granville, Riley's "proudest" achievement was that he presided over two decades of unprecedented growth. During his watch, the developers happily crammed 300,000 new homes and countless shopping malls into South County. No doubt Riley would have let them build more if they had wanted it. For public consumption, he claimed to favor "balanced and controlled growth to protect our quality of life." Occasionally, Riley let his guard down and angrily mocked citizens who complained about congestion and overdevelopment. In the mid-1980s, the Mission Viejo Co.--a development company delighted that their 20,000-home project had been green-lighted despite serious community objections--bought a full-page color ad in the Register. "Happy birthday, Supervisor Riley," it said. Tony Moiso, another major developer, once listed Riley as his "hero." Bren, who hardly ever makes himself available to the media, couldn't stop talking about Riley last week. It was important that the public believe the former supervisor was their servant. "Any history of Orange County will celebrate Tom Riley as one of its monumental public figures who was a persuasive, determined and effective leader with a big vision and a bigger heart," said Bren. "In ways big and small, [Riley] has touched us and left this a better place."

"He was loyal," said Granville. "But it was the depth of his loyalty." The Register offered no space for dissenting opinions. The Times carefully contextualized--and then buried--the comments of former OC Republican head and South County rancher Tom Rogers. Of Riley, Rogers observed: "He was loyal to his friends. And they happened to be developers."

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