Is Tony Bushala OC's Newest Kingmaker?

The founder of Friends for Fullerton's Future blog says his war on bad government didn't start with the Kelly Thomas beating, and it's not over yet

Bushala wasn't alone in his frustration with McKinley, Bankhead and Jones. "McKinley, being a police chief for 16 years, knew exactly what was going on," says Ron Thomas, who also recounts a meeting he had with Jones immediately after his son's death. When he asked Jones for answers about what happened to Kelly, Thomas says Jones looked at him and said, "I have no clue what the police department does."

Adds Thomas, "If there were a city government and a mayor that cared, these officers wouldn't have been on the street. These three guys never cared."

The first major protest against the city's police and elected leaders took place on July 30; gathered across the street from the police station were about 250 people, a cross-section of society armed with signs reading, "Serve and Protect Not Beat and Neglect" and, "Lock 'em up for Murder." They were joined by almost all of Southern California's television and radio stations, finally covering what Friends for Fullerton's Future had been reporting for weeks.

Tony Bushala
John Gilhooley
Tony Bushala
Bushala protesting against police brutality
Marisa Gerber
Bushala protesting against police brutality

The weekly protests and Friends for Fullerton's Future's ceaseless coverage produced results. On Aug. 11, 2011, Michael Sellers, then Fullerton's chief of police, retreated from the spotlight, claiming unspecified health problems; he retired on Feb. 18.

But the biggest bombshell came on Sept. 21, 2011, when Rackauckas filed homicide charges against Ramos, whom he charged with involuntarily manslaughter second-degree murder, and Cicinelli, for involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.

By then, however, Bushala had already moved from posting updates to the Thomas beating story to laying the groundwork for what quickly became a mission to unseat the majority of the five-member City Council. On the same day Sellers took his medical leave, Bushala filed paperwork creating the Committee Supporting the Recall of Pat McKinley, Don Bankhead and F. Richard "Dick" Jones. Publicly available campaign statements show Bushala and his older brother George have contributed $168,422 of their money to finance the effort.

On Aug. 19, just eight days after Bushala's recall effort went public, a group of law-enforcement unions—the Fullerton Police Officers Association, the Riverside Police Association, the Peace Officers Research Association and the Southern California Alliance of Law Enforcement—joined forces to fight the new committee. The group provided tens of thousands of dollars to fund the Protect Fullerton-Recall NO committee, which was formed by one of Bushala's favorite blogging targets, Ackerman, as well as Larry Bennett, a Fullerton planning commissioner.

Bennett claims Bushala is using the recall effort to advance his own narrow political interests as a would-be kingmaker. "Somebody who wants to spend that kind of money wants some quid pro quo in return, I believe," Bennett says. "He has a history of crossing swords with the city. He has a lot of property in town; there are code-enforcement issues that have been levied against the various properties. I think that part of it might be just to eliminate any hassle he might have from city staff moving forward."

"He's making things up," responds Bushala. "They've filed several complaints with the [California Fair Political Practices Commission]; I have hid absolutely nothing of my finances and timely filed all my paperwork." Bushala's voice increases in volume as he speaks. "He's made every claim in the world. Every time I write a check or do any political-action committee, it's all documented. He's trying to say I'm misleading people; he's full of it. He's full of himself."

On its website, the anti-recall campaign implies Bushala fleeced taxpayers thanks to the settlement he received from OCTA. Bushala points out that Ackerman represents the development firm St. Anton Partners, which, along with several other firms, applied for a subsidy from the redevelopment agency to develop a project in Fullerton's SOCO district. A city committee ranked St. Anton's project as sixth based on specific criteria, including availability of low-income housing.

"When it went to the City Council for a vote, [St. Anton Partners] got awarded $9.5 million," Bushala says. "So they went from sixth place to first, basically. I believe that happened because of the pressure with the recall, and Dick Ackerman has supported the three who are being recalled during their elections."

Bennett defends the council's decision to award the contract to St. Anton Partners, saying the initial ranking didn't properly weight the financial return on the investment. He claims that prior to the vote, a newly hired city manager re-evaluated the project's ranking. "So when they all came back and that [new] weighting was applied, the one unit that Dick Ackerman was pushing went up the list because you were getting a lot more units for a lot less subsidy," he says.

Bushala's supporters, including Whitaker, say his critics are misinformed. "Tony's foremost detractors seldom deal with facts when trying to be critical of his efforts," he says. "They attempt to vilify him in an emotional way. And I think that's a litmus test."

* * *

On an unseasonably hot afternoon, Bushala is walking through the transportation center. He stops by the Fullerton train station, a beige, Santa Fe-style building bisected by a breezeway that Bushala says he has spent nearly $491,000 faithfully restoring; $40,000 went to the city upfront to put the building on the National Register of Historic Places. The station houses a coffee shop run by his sister, as well as an office run by the attorney whose discarded junk mail was found in Thomas' backpack the night he was beaten. The building is just 100 yards south from the site of the beating.

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