Burying Tom Fuentes' Secrets

[Moxley Confidential] The longtime chairman of the OC Republican Party passes away and takes some great dirt with him

In the Weekly's infancy in the 1990s, Thomas J. Fuentes, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, tried to lead an advertising boycott of this newspaper. We weren't surprised Fuentes wanted to silence our voices. We had just begun to pull back the curtain hiding rampant hypocrisy that secretly existed in the county's dominant political party.

I'd already dismantled the lying existence of two prominent OC Republicans: Representative Bob Dornan and Eddie Allen, husband to Fuentes' vice chairwoman, Jo Ellen Allen. My investigations proved that Dornan fabricated several aspects of his life, including that he was a bloodied combat veteran. In truth, he evaded combat duty when other men his age were dying in Korea so he could enroll in acting classes. Allen was a con artist who used his political connections and lies—he flew Air Force One for President John F. Kennedy and had been a CIA spy—to steal the retirements of unsuspecting, fellow conservative Republicans.

The exposés infuriated Fuentes, who died earlier this month, and he wasn't happy when I called him one day to ask him about his various relationships. You can't blame an investigative reporter for being suspicious that the chairman of the party that controlled the county's Board of Supervisors somehow routinely ended up the recipient of sweetheart, local government contracts. But he did.

After the advertising boycott failed, Fuentes sent emissaries to take me to lunches or coffee trips in hopes that I would look elsewhere. That failed, too. A stubborn man with rigid convictions, he didn't quit. He eventually took Will Swaim, then my editor at the Weekly, out to lunch. I recall Swaim returning to the office after that meeting and saying something like, "What a strange man."

"What did you talk about?" I asked.

Swaim told me that Fuentes had been polite—even playful about their ideological differences, but had rambled on and on about President Ronald Reagan's foresight in arming the rebel Contras in Nicaragua nearly 20 years earlier.

(For a sense of those differences between Swaim and Fuentes, consider that my former boss half-jokingly began all his news meetings with an energetic "Comrades!" I got the sense Fuentes would have considered the greeting worthy of incarceration, if not deportation.)

There are many aspects of Fuentes' life that weren't noble. He defended the Catholic Church here when it knowingly harbored/hid pedophile priests (read Gustavo Arellano's story in this issue for more context). Presiding over a good-ol'-boys' club, he treated numerous female Republican candidates with abject contempt. He used his Hispanic heritage as a spear against Santa Ana Latino citizens victimized by GOP operatives who aimed to illegally suppress their vote. He used his position on a local community-college board to settle old political scores. He barked angrily about the threat of homosexuality to the nation and blocked any openly gay influence in party affairs—even while he frequently took young, gay men out to dinner, to shop or to the sauna.

But nobody can take this fact away from Fuentes: He was a superb MC. He knew instinctively how to regale. If going to an Orange County Democratic Party event was akin to watching elderly barn animals fart on one another (and, sadly, it was), Fuentes made his meetings mini-Las Vegas spectacles. He orchestrated colorful productions in which live entertainment acts separated speeches. Who else would pay teenage Vietnamese boys from Little Saigon to don elaborate costumes and perform a dragon dance onstage several times in one night?

Dressed nattily in fine suits, Fuentes always looked in control at party gatherings. But I'll never forget Election Night 1998, when he couldn't get Dornan off the stage and away from the mic at 11 p.m. so that Los Angeles television stations could carry a live concession speech from then-U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong. A rambling Dornan wouldn't stop blasting Chris Cox and Dana Rohrabacher for betraying him and Loretta Sanchez for stealing his congressional seat.

An alarmed Fuentes tugged on Dornan's suit without success, retreated, paced in the background, tugged some more on the outgoing congressman without success, and looked about to go crazy when a bloody fistfight broke out on stage between Dornan's screaming family and Fong supporters. I was in heaven. Fuentes looked like he'd seen Satan. For a man who sneeringly ridiculed Democrats for being poor, his show had become intolerably lowbrow. When I saw him several weeks later, he said something under his breath and shuffled away quickly.

But as time passed, Fuentes softened in dealings with me. He once shipped me a stack of new books by conservative authors. If he was thinking, "Moxley, get some education," he didn't say so in a pleasant note that accompanied the books.

My last conversation with Fuentes took place a couple of years ago at a political gathering. He was recovering from a serious operation, but he looked like he was regaining his strength. He approached, shook my hand and startled me. I had steeled myself for another rant.

"I think you'll be surprised at what I'm going to tell you," he said. "I've come to respect the Weekly."

I stood there semi-paralyzed, waiting for the punch line or a cocktail to the face.

"No, I'm not kidding. You guys go after everybody—Republicans, Democrats, everybody," he continued. "That's what a newspaper should do."

In the wake of those unexpected statements, I might not have been fully convinced of his sincerity, but I enjoyed one of the oddest, interesting conversations I've ever had with an OC power player. He even shared some secrets. (Poor Dana Rohrabacher.)

At the end of the talk, he reminded me that our discussion had been entirely off-the-record.

In Fuentes' world, it's best to take some secrets to the grave.

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