Brad Gates, Space Cowboy

The ex-sheriff's open-space dealmaking has some in San Juan Capistrano crying foul

He stood next to George H.W. Bush as the president declared a war on drugs; he led the unsuccessful charge to defeat the legalization of medical marijuana at the polls. “I still get tears in my eyes when it comes to the cop and robber, the good guy and the bad guy, the outlaw and the sheriff,” Gates told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I want the good guy to win.”

Despite playing the good guy, though, Gates often found himself on the wrong side of the rules. According to the Times, by the end of the 1980s, the county ended up paying nearly $1.3 million for settlements and jury verdicts stemming from a string of lawsuits against Gates, alleging he spied on enemies and violated civil rights—charges the former sheriff always maintained were bogus.

Throughout his tenure, Gates’ penchant for dealmaking—and his close relationship with developers—attracted scrutiny as well. A 1989 Register investigation revealed that Gates had used taxpayer money to make hundreds of toll calls for personal business between 1986 and 1988; the plurality of those calls went to Anthony Moiso’s Rancho Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita companies, at a time when both were heavily involved in development. The same article showed that Moiso-owned companies hadaloaned Gates at least $430,000. Another investigation found the sheriff had been spending many of his working hours in private meetings with political and business allies, including Moiso—who made headlines time and again for campaigning hard to get his friend Gates re-elected. In the late 1980s, the two men went into business together running a San Juan Capistrano stable; it was put up for sale in 1995 to avoid foreclosure.

Jim Reardon, a Gates critic, stands at the riding park property
John Gilhooley
Jim Reardon, a Gates critic, stands at the riding park property
Councilman Mark Nielsen has defended San Juan Capistrano's open-space efforts
John Gilhooley
Councilman Mark Nielsen has defended San Juan Capistrano's open-space efforts

For a period of the 1990s, Gates was doing more than simply running the sheriff’s department. The Times article that produced the cop-and-robber quote also had then-OC Republican Party chairman Tom Fuentes saying that Gates had, in the wake of Orange County’s bankruptcy, become the county’s “de facto czar.” Filling a power vacuum left by the financial calamity, Gates spent his hours negotiating debt repayments, lobbying Sacramento legislators and overseeing the county’s budget. In those days, the Times wrote, you could always tell when Gates was in the county’s Hall of Administration: He would leave his county-owned Lincoln Town Car parked “beneath the building, leaving it askew by the elevator rather than pulling into a marked spot. . . . He is, after all, still the sheriff.”

Nowadays, Gates parks—usually between the designated white lines—his gleaming Lincoln Mark LT pickup truck in the tiny lot of San Juan Capistrano’s homely, low-slung city hall. Though he holds no elected office, Gates spends a good deal of time there. In the early part of this past decade, he served as the point person for a developer seeking approval to build on open tracts at the south end of the city. In 2005, though, Gates went from working with city hall to working forit, winning appointment to a committee that would look into how to preserve the town’s northwest open-space area. Within two years, the committee’s purview was widened to include allthe open space in the town. Among the members of the 14-member panel, Gates was appointed to hold an outsized role, as a member of the three-person Finance Subcommittee that would negotiate with private property owners.

San Juan Capistrano has long valued the idea of preserving open space. In the 1970s, the city won a legal challenge that prevented a housing development in what would become the city of Laguna Niguel from encroaching on the ridgelines overlooking the north end of the city. In the 1990s, the City Council spent part of a voter-approved $20 million bond to acquire one of the last remaining farms in South County. And Gates’ committee saw successes, too, acquiring 109 fallow acres for only $2 million in early 2008.

That same year, the committee and City Council backed two local ballot measures that would issue $30 million in bonds and prevent open space from being rezoned without voter approval. While campaigning for the measures, Gates wrote a column in the Capistrano Dispatch that drew on what he knew best: local history. “I was rummaging through an old trunk the other day, looking for a photograph,” he wrote. What he instead found was a yellowing newspaper article from 1975. In it, San Juan Capistrano citizens were interviewed about the need to preserve the town’s open space. “Again,” Gates wrote, “we, the citizens of San Juan Capistrano, have an opportunity to finish this 33-year-old debate on Nov. 4 by voting ‘yes.’”

The two initiatives passed with more than 70 percent voter approval. That number was shocking even to supporters, who weren’t sure whether residents would vote to raise their own taxes during a recession. “The community is our secret weapon,” Edwards says. “They rally themselves to support open space.”

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Despite the controversy it sparked, everyone seems to agree the riding park at the corner of Ortega Highway and La Pata Avenue is, at the very least, nice.

Leaving San Juan Capistrano heading east on Ortega, it’s on the right. Lemon trees sit as low green globes dotted with yellow, their waxy leaves rippling with the breeze. A wide field of grass stretches beyond. To the south, the land shoots up into a rambling slope bisected by power lines. Cutting the center of the 132-acre property is San Juan Creek, which turns turbulent after rain.

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