El Rancho Much Too Grande

Photo by Tenaya HillsThe 14,000 new homes that will be built once the Rancho Mission Viejo project is completed won't just wipe out some of the last remaining wilderness in Orange County. They will also turn surface streets in South Orange County into a massive parking lot.

One of the major entrances to the new development will go through San Juan Capistrano, threatening to destroy the historic town's tranquil, idyllic lifestyle with cars, cars and more cars. But while San Clemente city officials have complained about the looming traffic nightmare and nearby Mission Viejo actually filed suit against the project, San Juan Capistrano city officials have been strangely optimistic.

"The Ranch has been very cooperative with the city of San Juan Capistrano," San Juan Capistrano City Council member Joe Soto recently told the Weekly. "We're more than happy with the Ranch."

Why is Soto, who last December stepped down as the city's mayor, so happy? Part of the reason may stem from how he won his race for office two years ago. On Nov. 5, 2002, the same day Soto won his race for City Council, California voters passed Proposition 50, the so-called Clean Drinking Water, Coastal and Beach Protection Act. But Prop. 50 had less to do with clean water than it did with using taxpayer money to purchase unprofitable land owned by major corporations who also happened to be major contributors to Prop. 50 (see Anthony Pignataro's "Clean Water, Murky Politics," Oct. 10, 2002). As it turns out, the Yes on 50 campaign apparently also funneled cash from backers of the Rancho Mission Viejo project to a slate mail campaign that helped elect Soto.

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Documents obtained by the Weeklyshow that the Yes on 50 campaign—which received tens of thousands of dollars from the companies behind the Rancho Mission Viejo project—contributed $35,000 to the so-called Voter Education Project, a slate mail fund managed by the Newport Beach political consulting firm Forde and Mollrich. The Voter Education Project was behind a series of vicious slate mailers sent out ostensibly in support of Measure CC, a city ballot initiative in support of building a local high school.

But nearly every page of the mailers also urged voters to support Soto—a longtime friend of Ranch owner Tony Moiso—in his race against a local businessman named Mark Nielsen.

"Corporate corruption[original emphasis] seems to be everywhere," one of the pro-Soto fliers stated. "The papers are filled with stories of corporate crooks, cheating their stockholders, their employees, and the public. In small towns like ours we demand a higher standard from local businessmen and our local representatives. We had not been disappointed . . . until Mark Nielsen came to town."

That flier and others accused Nielsen of being a "controversial Chicago businessman." The mailers also pointed out that Nielsen had been an executive of Avery Communications, whose subsidiary, HBS billing services, had previously been charged by the Federal Trade Commission "with illegally billing consumers for unauthorized phone charges."

In newspaper articles about the election controversy, Soto said he paid $8,500 to have his photograph included in several of the mailers but claimed he didn't know anything about their content. "What I had my name on, I paid for," he told the Weeklyin a recent interview. "Whatever was tagged on there, I don't know how that works."

Soto said he had no idea that the Yes on 50 campaign had paid $35,000 to the Voter Education Project just a month before the election. "I don't know who was putting money into what," he said. "I was just doing my deal. I've been asked about it and said I don't know."

For his part, Nielsen claimed he was brought to Avery Communications to help fix the company and had nothing to do with the firm's questionable business practices. He filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission over the slate mailers, but the agency didn't fine Forde Mollrich because the firm obtained its information from public records.

Nielsen says Soto called him a few weeks before the election to say that he wasn't behind the mailers. "But there were more of them coming out," he recently told the Weekly. "The decent thing to do would have been to put a stop to it. There were six to eight of these [mailers] in the last two weeks of the election. If I were to have spent the same amount of money to do those mailings, I would have spent three times what I spent on the whole campaign."

Diane Gaynor, a spokesperson for the Rancho Mission Viejo Co., said company officials were unable to respond to the Weekly's request for comment. She claimed the company gave money to the Yes on 50 campaign because the initiative was "in keeping with the ranch family's effort to protect the local watershed, preserve and protect wetlands as well as preserve the availability of water and water quality."

Gerald Meral, who helped manage the Yes on 50 campaign, declined to be interviewed for this story. "I had nothing to do with that campaign," he said. As a better source, Meral suggested his former partner, Joe Caves, who failed to respond to the Weekly's request for an interview.

Tom Rogers, a former Republican Party activist from San Juan Capistrano who chaired the anti-Prop. 50 campaign, said the ballot initiative was a cleverly disguised scheme to trick voters—and to launder money from major corporations to friendly politicians.

"A lot of [Prop. 50] money was channeled into local political campaigns through Forde Mollrich," Rogers said. "In this case, they used it for the benefit of electing a local candidate who supported the Ranch plan. It is bound to have a detrimental effect when the obvious conflicts of the Ranch plan and the interests of San Juan Capistrano collide."


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