Lo Siento

An open letter of apology to the Spanish people

Honorable Mr. José Maria Aznar Lopez
President of the government of Spain
Madrid, Spain

Honorable Mr. President:

I'm unsure whether to say, "buenos dias" or, "buenos noches" because I haven't a clue as to the time difference. Let's see: it's 6:15 p.m. as I write this, and you're in Spain, which is, uh, how many hours ahead, again? Oh, well—whatever time it is, on behalf of all sensible residents of Orange County, California, I would like to apologize for any role we may have had in foisting upon your beautiful country Mr. George Argyros. President George W. Bush's recently anointed ambassador to Spain is well-known for mucking things up in this part of el mundo, and it is my sincere hope that by the time he has left Madrid, he will not have rekindled the Spanish-American War.

Why would such an outcome even cross my mind? History. Not Spanish-American history, but George Argyros-Orange County history. Allow me to explain, Señor Presidente.

As you no doubt have heard, Mr. Argyros is a large, oafish bore with no diplomatic skills and no foreign-policy experience, and if you address him in your native tongue, he'll most likely come back with, "Sorry, Josie, don't parlez vous the spinach." So how'd a poster child for ugly Americanism wind up in Madrid? The millions and millions of dollars he helped contribute to our Republican Party over the years, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in soft money in our last national election to the party, our own presidente and our own presidente's election-recount legal fund. Do you have those funds over there, too? Mr. Argyros' wife, Judie, now emptying the clothing racks of your more expensive boutiques, also kicked in more than $10,000, although if you ask her, it's possible she won't know a thing about it. To cover his bets, Mr. Argyros also gave the Democrats' vice presidential candidate $1,000. Later, just to equalize things a bit, he peeled off another $100,000 for President Bush's inauguration.

Yes, he's—how you say?—muy loaded. Despite keeping the actual amount of his fortune out of the press for years, Argyros was finally forced by U.S. disclosure laws (required of all ambassador nominees) to reveal that his wallet holds somewhere between $1.2 billion and $1.8 billion. That's one muy gigante wallet, ?

This year we learned how he amassed a small part of that fortune. In September, the state attorney general's office settled a consumer-fraud lawsuit against Mr. Argyros' property-management company for $1.5 million. Bush administration apologists probably told you not to worry, that Mr. Argyros was not named in the settlement. That's not true. He was. The settlement agreement acknowledges that all "the directors and officers of the Arnel Management Co."—which clearly includes the owner, Mr. Argyros—were responsible for the claims against the company.

Republicans like to talk a lot about "personal responsibility," but Mr. Argyros' apologists have said Mr. Argyros is not responsible for the actions of his employees. That ignores evidence that he pushed his employees to run the tenant fraud scam—and suggests that "personal responsibility" applies only to the poor. For everyone else, there's an excuse.

Worse, the Orange County district attorney's office prosecutors and investigators who originally handled the case (before bumping it up to the attorney general; more on that in uno momento) publicly claimed that our new man in Madrid knew of and participated in the systematic "rip-off" that swindled millions of dollars out of poor and middle-class tenants over the course of two decades. They allege he rewarded employees with bonuses for illegally withholding security deposits, overcharging tenants for apartment repairs, and billing tenants for imaginary expenses; reprimanded employees when they did not defraud tenants; and angrily complained to top managers on at least two occasions that they were not sufficiently padding tenant charges. In one bizarre instance, an investigator tells us, Mr. Argyros called an apartment manager and ordered him to collect an extra $25 from a tenant. That's not so weird, but this is: Mr. Argyros reportedly made that call from his yacht, which was then off the coast of Greece. I'm not positive—because I have only a California public school education in geography—but Greece may be pretty close to Spain. You might want to check on that.

I do know that an Orange County prosecutor involved in the case said Mr. Argyros is "personally liable," that the courts should have stepped in to stop Mr. Argyros' fraudulent business practices to prevent others from being scammed, and that it was doubtful Mr. Argyros could reform himself due to his long history of similar rip-offs.

Speaking of similar rip-offs, my newspaper has also reported that Mr. Argyros owns a utility company involved in making questionable charges to his tenants.

With all this dirt on Mr. Argyros, you're probably wondering why the Orange County district attorney didn't proceed with such a strong case. The answer to this is one of the most disturbing things about Mr. Argyros. He has historically used his wealth to cultivate friends in high places. I'm not saying he . . . you know . . . I'm just saying.

Take this example. When our district attorney, Tony Rackauckas, ran for the office three years ago, he had no money. Enter Mr. Argyros and another businessman (alleged by some district attorney investigators to be mob-connected), who teamed up to form a secret foundation that funneled thousands of dollars to Mr. Rackauckas. When the foundation was exposed, it was quickly and quietly disbanded. We think. Mr. Rackauckas faces re-election next year.

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