Business as Unusual

Photo by Jack GouldAs long as he can hold a pen, former Huntington Beach City Councilman Dave Garofalo remains a menace to society.

Any doubt about that was removed last week when Orange County Register reporter Jim Hinch revealed that Garofalo wrote himself a check for $11,500 out of the city Conference and Visitors Bureau's charity bank account. That was in November, when Garofalo was negotiating with Orange County district attorney officials who were preparing criminal charges against him.

Garofalo's relationship with the Visitors Bureau had already caused the city a world of trouble, and it resulted in his Jan. 10 felony conviction. Government Code 1090 bars public officials from maintaining a financial interest in the public contracts they oversee. But Garofalo repeatedly cast council votes to fund the bureau—and thus funding the lucrative no-bid contract he held to publish its annual tourism guide. In separate matters, Garofalo also pleaded guilty to 15 misdemeanors for casting council votes in favor of businesses and developers who had bought advertising from Garofalo's various other publications.

Despite breaching the most basic element of democracy—the integrity of the vote—Garofalo was treated gently at his Superior Court sentencing hearing. His three-year prison term was suspended by Judge Ronald P. Kreber, who also fined him $2,700. The Fair Political Practices Commission dealt the only punishment with teeth, fining him $47,000.

Mike Lubinski, who prepared the DA's case against Garofalo, was philosophical about the outcome. He told the Weekly the penalties were consistent with other cases involving a first-time offender who is in poor health. That's looking at it optimistically: Garofalo's crimes stretched back over several years; he was a first-time offender only in the sense that Jan. 10 was the first time he had been caught.

It has since become obvious that even being caught did not chasten Garofalo. He showed no remorse after his sentencing last month, maintaining that he never intentionally broke the law. He referred to his convictions as "punitive results from some reasonable technical issues."

Then came news of Garofalo's attempt to abscond with $11,500 from a Visitors Bureau account created to pay for a millennium celebration that never came about. On Nov. 28, 2001, Garofalo simply filled in a blank check that he had kept for months (signed by Diane Baker, who has since resigned as the bureau's president) and deposited it into a Pacific Liberty Bank account he'd recently opened in his own name.

Garofalo returned the money on Jan. 2—a week before he entered his guilty pleas—but only to head off another DA investigation.

The bureau's board of directors met this week to scrutinize its check-signing policies. However, its biggest problems aren't its policies, but its failure to adhere to them. For example, the agreement between the bureau and the city of Huntington Beach has always demanded that the bureau "shall employ no CITY official nor any regular CITY employee in the work performed pursuant to this agreement." It's also always insisted that "No officer or employee of CITY shall have any financial interest in this Agreement in violation of the applicable provisions of the California Government Code."

The capital letters are in the agreement, but that didn't stop Garofalo from publishing the tourism guide while serving as a city councilman and mayor. Terms of Garofalo's original 1993 contract with the bureau required that ad revenue be deposited in a checking account jointly held by him and bureau officials. But for seven years, the joint account never existed, giving Garofalo sole control over the funds.

Rather than settling for the bureau's internal policy review, perhaps it's time for the City Council to consider whether the bureau might be better officially folded into city government—or whether it truly serves any purpose worth its $250,000-per-year cost to taxpayers.

As it is now, the bureau's board members treat the agency as a private club. For example, bureau chairman Steve Daniel covered for Garofalo when the Weekly phoned him in mid-January at his Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Huntington Beach. Sources had indicated that Garofalo was personally dispersing some of the bureau's money to groups in Huntington Beach.

Daniel denied that—and any impropriety. "There were leftover funds, and the developer who donated the money wanted it sent out to four or five different places. Then he wanted the rest of it back," Daniel told the Weekly then. "Garofalo didn't do anything wrong. There was just a little bit of a misunderstanding. There was nothing illegal about anything.

"That's all," Daniel concluded. "If there was a story there—something wrong—believe me, I'd tell you. But it's business as usual."


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