Councilman Garofalo Is Out of the Room

Photo by Jack GouldThe all-American tragicomedy of Dave Garofalo's political career isn't exactly culminating with the 1812 Overture. Nope, it's Government Code 1090—which bars public officials from maintaining a financial interest in the public contracts they oversee—and it's all over but the sentencing hearing in Superior Court.

Sources close to political-corruption investigations by the Orange County district attorney and the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) tell the Weekly that Garofalo has agreed to plead guilty to one felony and 15 misdemeanors, be banned for life from elected office, and pay a $50,000 fine.

Yet, unless you were following closely at Monday night's Huntington Beach City Council meeting, you could easily have missed the signs that this was probably Garofalo's last official act. The fat man didn't sing. There was no grandiloquent soliloquy. No fanfare. No fireworks. No melodramatic wrestle with death. Best of all, no tantrum. Hell, Garofalo was offstage before the curtain came down. The man who always sought the stardom of an over-the-top blockbuster went out as abstrusely as an indie flick. Near the end, as city clerk Connie Brockway read the intricate mumbo-jumbo of 14 new city ordinances into the public record like a five-minute Zen chant, you almost needed subtitles.

Then came the punch line, Garofalo's final words from the City Council dais: "I'm sorry, Connie, your microphone was off. Could you repeat that?" It was nearly 11 p.m., almost four hours into the meeting. The council chamber was nearly empty. Only Garofalo laughed.

Moments later, as his colleagues discussed the last two items on the agenda, Garofalo quietly picked up his keys, stood up and put on his sports coat. He turned and walked away from a pile of paperwork, wandering out a back door into the clear, cold night.

The closest thing to a eulogy came from Brockway, who recited the final votes of the night in her soft, dutiful monotone. Both votes were the same, so she said it twice: "Six ayes, and Councilman Garofalo is out of the room."

Garofalo's critics the next day disagreed about whether they'd seen his back for the last time. A man who loves attention as much as he hates scrutiny had passed up a high-profile chance to bang the drum of his own innocence, they observed, but he hadn't actually called it quits. But others, citing sources in law enforcement and even Garofalo himself, said Dave was finished, that Monday night was the last episode, that he'd reportedly taped a farewell address for the city's cable channel, HBTV3, due to air just before Christmas.

The silence was eerie, coming after Garofalo had argued long and loudly against accusations that his publishing business—in which he sold advertisements to people and businesses with issues before the City Council—was a conflict of interest. Eventually, the scope of the investigation into Garofalo's unconventional business practices and their relationship to his public office included agents from the FBI; investigators and prosecutors from the Orange County district attorney's office; and representatives from the U.S. attorney's office, the IRS and California's Franchise Tax Board.

"Remember, I followed movie actor Jack Kelly to office in Huntington Beach," Garofalo pointed out many times. "He owned a newspaper in the city, sat on the council for eight years. The difference is no one filed any charges against him."

Actually, Kelly was eventually fined by the FPPC, but that fact never seemed to register with Garofalo. Hyperbolic and contradictory all the way, he alternately proclaimed his total innocence of wrongdoing, his confusion and ignorance of the law, the political motives of his enemies, the witch-hunt tactics of his investigators, the dire consequences for American democracy if he had to leave office, his poor health and financial situation, and the good deeds he had done along the way.

Near the end, he got plain weird.

In November, Garofalo sent a mass e-mail to supporters that telegraphed his resignation while invoking his victimhood. "I know of no one in modern times more closely investigated than I have been," he wrote. "So, I am trying my very best to end the nightmare caused by several very nasty local environmentally driven activist [sic] who have also looked at me as a roadblock to their almost militant advances on the community."

But by December, Garofalo himself had apparently become an environmentalist—or "Your New Local Naturalist," which is how he signed a rambling e-mail filled with Whitmanesque tributes to the healing power of "an occasional nature injection" and a vow to "get an aquarium and place it next to the kitchen table."

Ultimately, it was the votes that Garofalo cast in favor of funding the city's visitors' bureau—and, by extension, the exclusive, no-bid contract he held to publish its tourism guide—that violated Government Code 1090, one of the oldest laws on the books.

The consequences will likely reverberate beyond the one-year-premature loss of the council seat Garofalo has held since 1994. There is a question of whether pleading to a felony without jail time will deprive Garofalo of the right to vote, as it would if he were incarcerated or on parole. There is the matter of the many boards on which Garofalo serves, including the board of directors of Huntington Beach-based Pacific Liberty Bank, which Garofalo helped found. Bank president Rick Ganulin did not respond to several inquiries, but spokespersons for the Federal Reserve and the state Department of Financial Institutions were appalled at the thought of a felon serving as a bank director. "Especially if it's money-related," said Alana Golden-Nabong of the state agency, "because that definitely puts the institution in jeopardy."

Some may contend that Garofalo's impending exit is proof the system works. But in situations like this, that chorus has become so familiar that it's part of the system, too. The system works by occasionally isolating and sacrificing its most expendable member. That's why Garofalo will likely be the only man charged in a wide-ranging investigation into his unseemly conflicts of interest, unconventional personal business, and unmistakably ambitious political associations with some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Orange County—from developers like George Argyros, Robert Mayer and Christopher Gibbs to political machinists like Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and former Assemblyman Scott Baugh. And let's not forget Ed Laird, the Huntington Beach businessman who "bought"—but never quite paid for—Garofalo's publishing business to help him hide his conflicts of interest.

Garofalo will be gone, but the rest of them are still around, certainly recruiting his next incarnation. Yep, the system works just fine.


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