By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Honorable Mr. José Maria Aznar Lopez
President of the government of 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, sí?
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.
So what's wrong with Mr. Argyros throwing his money around like that? The appearance of favoritism. When Mr. Rackauckas' deputy district attorneys and investigators were poised to file criminal charges against Mr. Argyros, Mr. Rackauckas stepped in and ordered Mr. Argyros' name removed from the complaint. When this behind-closed-doors decision was exposed (mostly by our paper), Mr. Rackauckas was forced to step aside and hand over the case to the state attorney general. The same attorney general and our county's grand jury are now investigating the foundation Mr. Argyros and the alleged mobster created. We're not holding our breath that anything will come of those probes. We'll probably find out months or years from now that the state attorney general didn't press the property-management case because of another behind-closed-doors deal cut with the Bush administration and the U.S. Senate to ensure Mr. Argyros got safely to Spanish terra firma.
By the way, most victims of Mr. Argyros' scams were Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants. Now, I know what you're thinking: Santa Maria, this is a long letter!I know what else you're thinking: if Mr. Argyros has experience screwing Mexicans and Vietnamese, maybe he can do something about the Basques. Resist the urge, señor. Mr. Argyros has proved himself an equal-opportunity troublemaker.
Federal prosecutors allege that a health-care group chaired by Mr. Argyros cheated Medicare—which all working Americans help fund—out of $103 million. Mr. Argyros unapologetically used his financial and political muscle to ram through a shopping center development in a quiet neighborhood of working-class Huntington Beach residents. Mr. Argyros is still shamelessly using his financial and political muscle to ram through development of an international airport next to the quiet upper-middle-class neighborhoods of South Orange County.
His shamelessness knows no bounds. While driving an Orange County-based air carrier, Air Cal, into the ground, Mr. Argyros bought the Seattle Mariners professional baseball franchise for $13 million in 1981. The books show the Mariners profited every year he owned it, but in 1985, after gutting the team of high-priced free agents and talented young players, he pleaded poverty and threatened to move the franchise to Tampa unless the county renegotiated his stadium lease. He went from paying $3.5 million per year to getting free rent for the next two years before the annual rent shifted to $1.2 million per year. But there were even more benefits in the lease deal: if crowds were sufficiently small, taxpayers had to pay Mr. Argyros for the unsold seats. But fans still got screwed: small crowds also meant he could break his lease and move the team. So Mr. Argyros consistently fielded pathetic ball clubs, fans stayed away in droves, he got paid for lousy attendance, and he once again threatened to flee in 1989. That made him the most hated man in Seattle, where no previous owner had ever threatened to move once, let alone twice. Finally, in 1990, Mr. Argyros sold the team—for a cool $77.5 million. He even got the new owner to assume $12 million in club liabilities.Presidente, this is just a partial rundown of the misery Mr. Argyros has inflicted on good, hard-working American citizens. We can only imagine what he has in store for good, hard-working Spanish citizens. Of course, he'll come up with different spins on the previously mentioned items while whisking you to Paris on his private jet or across the wine-dark Mediterranean on his private yacht. For the sake of the people you serve, be vigilant. While serving on the U.S. taxpayers' dime, he will no doubt be scoping out future business opportunities in Spain. I'd advise keeping a close eye on your rental housing. And your health-care outfits. And your development interests. And your elected officials. And your airlines. And your professional soccer teams. And . . . well, I'm sure you get the idea. Adios, amigo. Matt Coker
King Juan Carlos I
El Pais newspaper