By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Illustration by Kathryn HyattIn a 2001 poll, The Orange County Register asked its readers to identify the most mysterious local celebrity. They named reclusive Newport Beach billionaire Donald Bren, pal of President George W. Bush and owner of the Irvine Co.—the county's largest private landowner and its most insatiable real estate developer.
Most newspapers would take the answer as a hint that they'd failed to keep the public adequately informed about Orange County's most powerful man. But if you read the Register, you know they have trouble taking hints. They've never written a tell-all profile of the oddly secretive businessman whose notorious behind-the-scenes plotting does more to shape the daily lives of local residents than any White House or UN.
The closest Reg readers have gotten to Bren remains a January 2002 feature about a Bren employee. Editorial decision-making at the Register has always been suspect and no less when they decided only to introduce us intimately to Mike McKee, the latest smiley face in Bren's cutthroat corporate-political empire. Thanks to the paper's sleuths, we are now aware of McKee's background, family life, business acumen, mannerisms, interests and personal feelings. Aren't you impressed that Bren's gofer "has an unusual ability to relate to people across a wide range of interests, from a colleague to a clerk in a copy room"?
It wouldn't be fair to single-out the Register for soft treatment of Bren. No newspaper has done more to advocate for the Republican businessman's private interests than the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times, a place where Irvine Co. press releases are immediately and unquestioningly converted into alleged news stories. In May, for instance, the Times apparently didn't even bother to conduct all of its own interviews about a proposed controversial, massive Irvine Co. housing development in eastern Orange County. A local politician's favorable quote about the project was shamelessly lifted—without disclosure—from the company's press packet.
It's not very pretty, but there is a simple explanation behind this journalistic cowardice. Through his team of public relations executives, the Irvine Co. chairman has always made it clear that he'd be displeased if newspapers explored the reality behind his carefully manufactured image as a conservative businessman, lavish philanthropist and upstanding family man. If you doubt that Bren isn't a sore loser when he doesn't get his way, just consider former Bren consigliere Gary Hunt—booted after the company failed to stop a 2000 slow-growth initiative in Newport Beach. If he wants, Bren also has—according to the latest Forbes list of richest Americans—$4 billion to help channel his wrath; the Orange County Business Journal says it's closer to $6 billion.
At the Weekly, we've never worried about Bren or the threat of his wrath. In fact, in our eight years, we've routinely exposed Irvine Co. shenanigans—from handing county taxpayers liability for the quake-centered cliffs around some of his exclusive housing developments and then calling it an "open space gift," to taking a publicly built Newport Coast Drive and giving part of it to the developer-friendly Transportation Corridor Agencies for their toll road. We've even named him—and one of his sons—to our annual Scariest People in OC list.
It was amusing, then, when about four years ago the Irvine Co. ignored our critical news reports and began buying ads to reach our 212,000 weekly readers who often are—according to audited surveys—young, college-educated, high-income and ready to buy or rent homes.
In early June, however, the tenuous relationship collapsed when seething Irvine Co. executives yanked their advertising—estimated at more than $120,000 annually—from the Weekly. Our crime? We'd forgotten to adhere to Bren's prime directive: thou shalt not publicly discuss the actions of my wandering penis.
The fuss centers on recent courthouse disclosures that in a little more than the past decade, the family-values touting Bren has fathered three children out of wedlock and, worse, allegedly failed to visit or adequately support the kids. In a May 30 cover story, "Don Juan Bren: The Secret Life of Orange County's Most Notorious Billionaire Lover," Weekly reporter Steve Lowery observed the inescapable but until then unwritten irony: the man who bankrolls Bible-thumping California politicians as well as President Bush—whose 2000 campaign theme was "leave no child behind"—had callously left behind his own illegitimate offspring, according to court records.
What we've witnessed is a counterfeit image crashing head-on into immovable facts. I called Larry Thomas, Bren's normally chatty press spokesman, to offer him the chance to explain Bren's reaction to the words of one reporter at the county's third-largest paper. But the man who helps sell the Irvine Co. as a corporation "driven by conscience" didn't call back.