Slapp-Happy

Anti-tower activists claim developer and friends are suing them into silence

On Christmas Eve of last year, three former members of Santa Ana's Historic French Park Association served association president Paul Giles and the organization with a lawsuit. The plaintiffs, William Beaubeaux and Alfonso and Patricia Bustamante, allege the homeowners association illegally donated $10,000 to a group opposing One Broadway Plaza, a 37-story building proposed by mega-developer Mike Harrah that would be the tallest in Orange County's history.

The suit also claims the donation violates California's nonprofit-organization bylaws, which require such organizations to remain out of partisan politics. It demands the French Park Association return the $10,000 to its treasury, claiming such a move would result in "a substantial benefit . . . to the association, on whose behalf this action is prosecuted."

But what the suit doesn't mention is how the plaintiffs it are intertwined with One Broadway Plaza's main benefactor (and Weeklylandlord), Harrah.

Beaubeaux, an architect, works for Harrah and leases office space in one of the developer's many downtown Santa Ana buildings. Alfonso Bustamante is the brother of Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante, a One Broadway Plaza supporter. Carlos helped win his council seat thanks to the support of Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez, another project supporter and the recipient of a Harrah contribution to her failed state Assembly campaign. Alvarez nominated Alfonso for his seat on the city's Historic Resources Commission. And plaintiff Patricia Bustamante was at the center of controversy last summer when the LosAngelesTimesuncovered allegations that she and others had duped Santa Ana residents into signing letters of support for One Broadway Plaza without fully explaining the project.

Beaubeaux, a three-year resident of French Park, dismisses allegations by Santa Ana activists that he's doing Harrah's dirty work as "ridiculous."

"Individually, I have no problem with people voicing their opinion for or against the building," he said. "As an association, though, we should stay neutral."

Beaubeaux defended the suit in a Jan. 25 OrangeCountyRegisterarticle. "The money should be used to improve French Park, not for political issues," he told reporter Courtney Perkes. But Giles, a burly but soft-spoken attorney, scoffs at his neighbor's view. "If we're not going to use our treasury to protect our neighborhood, what the hell do we have it for?" he asked.

In their response to the suit, the French Park Association claims Beaubeaux and the Bustamantes are using the courts to prevent them from campaigning against One Broadway Plaza. They cited California Code of Civic Procedure 425.16, more popularly known as the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) Law. This statute prohibits individuals and corporations from lodging lawsuits that "chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech."

"It would be difficult to conceive of a lawsuit that falls more squarely within the intended purpose of the statute," wrote lawyer Robert F. Zwierlein in defense of the French Park Association.

"The donation that we made to oppose One Broadway Plaza was pure speech," Giles said. "It was a statement by the association that we oppose this project. When the [Beaubeaux-Bustamante] lawsuit was filed, they were asserting we did not have the right to speak in that fashion."

The Santa Ana City Council originally approved the project on July 19, 2004, but members of Santa Ana's powerful neighborhood associations quickly gathered enough signatures to place the project on a citywide referendum, which is scheduled for April 5. French Park's turn-of-the-century homes stand just four blocks from One Broadway Plaza's proposed site—literally in the massive tower's shadow.

Giles thinks the skyscraper would be a "danger to the neighborhood. It would bring a huge adverse impact due to the noise, traffic and pollution it would attract. It's just a bad deal all around."

Harrah has filed four suits seeking to block the One Broadway Plaza referendum. The tower's opponents have spent more than $80,000 in legal fees in response to those suits.

"Frankly, I see Mr. Harrah's lawsuits as SLAPP suits as well," Giles said. "It's just money to him, but our pockets are getting empty. It's part of doing business for him. And if he shuts down the referendum or opposition, he wins. "Developers with lots of money can terrorize citizens into silence," he concluded. "We decline to be terrorized."

GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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