In a display of Nixonian desperation, beleaguered Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo is apparently attempting to retain control over the lucrative tourist-bureau publishing contract that the City Council unanimously ordered stripped from him last month.
The Weekly has learned that Team Publishing—a mysterious company whose name tops the list of bidders to replace Garofalo as publisher of the Huntington Beach Visitor's Guide—is subletting an office out of Garofalo's suite, the same one in which he produced the guide for years, for the last few under the auspices of AQC Corp.
This means Garofalo is connected to two of the final six bidders that will present their proposals to the Conference and Visitor's Bureau on Nov. 7 at the Waterfront Hilton, since AQC has also re-applied for the contract.
Garofalo and AQC lost their longtime deal with the Conference and Visitor's Bureau after the City Council ruled at its Aug. 21 and Sept. 5 meetings that the exclusive, no-bid arrangement was unethical. Not only had Garofalo profited (he kept all the guide's advertising revenue) from the contract his council vote helped approve, but he had also racked up a history of casting votes favorable to the merchants and developers who bought ads from him.
The Visitor's Bureau initially resisted the council's instruction to drop Garofalo. Chairman John Gilbert suggested that Garofalo keep the contract for another year or receive a negotiated settlement. But threatened with the loss of its city funding—$270,000, which accounts for the bureau's entire budget—on Sept. 6, the bureau's board of directors complied, voting 8-1 to cut its ties to Garofalo.
On or about that day, sources told the Weekly, Team Publishing moved into Garofalo's suite at the Seacliff Business Park at 2124 Main St., right across from City Hall. But strangely, Team Publishing's name still does not appear on tenant directories in the sprawling park.
"This matter gets curiouser and curiouser," said Councilman Dave Sullivan, whose motion led to the council's unanimous order to the Visitor's Bureau. "At this point, nothing would amaze me when it comes to Garofalo."
Just as puzzling is the role of Diane Baker, president of the Conference and Visitor's Bureau. Baker allowed both of the Garofalo-connected bids to become finalists for the Visitor's Guide contract.
"I don't understand it," Baker told The Orange County Register on Oct. 17. "We just took everyone who applied. We can't stop people from applying."
Of course, Baker was referring only to the AQC bid, which was all the Register asked her about. But in an Oct. 6 interview with the Weekly, Baker said she had weeded out two other applicants because "they didn't meet the requirements" specified in the bureau's invitation to prospective bidders. A complete list of the bidders obtained by the Weekly identified these companies as Rosebud Publishing and Entertainment Resources. Rosebud president Dennis McDougal confirmed he had received just such a disqualifying note from Baker.
However, a crucial requirement —the one that originally cost Garofalo and AQC the contract—demands that the contractor "shall employ no Huntington Beach city official nor any regular Huntington Beach city employee. . . . No officer or employee of the city of Huntington Beach shall have any financial interest in this agreement."
Garofalo is already the focus of several government investigations and a citizens' recall effort because of a wide range of political-corruption charges. His response to several calls for comment was to leave a brief voice-mail message at the Weeklyon Saturday, Oct. 21, claiming we were in "la la land" because AQC holds The Local News' office-suite lease. Garofalo didn't explain either his role in Team Publishing or why AQC would give "rent-free" (his words) office space to a competitor in the fight to get the Visitor's Guide contract. Garofalo did not deny The Local News and Team Publishing operate out of the same office.
Baker failed to respond to the Weekly's telephone calls requesting comment. Baker had previously refused to provide any information about Team Publishing (or any of the tourist-guide bidders) until the Weekly submitted a California Public Records Act request. Even then, Baker provided only the name of the company and its chief financial officer, Ghassan Hreish.
Neither the California secretary of state's office nor the Orange County clerk's office has any record of the company. Directory assistance found no telephone number for it.
Nonetheless, an unannounced visit to Garofalo's suite at Seacliff Office Park on Oct. 19 found Team Publishing buzzing with quiet efficiency. Its office was well-stocked with everything from computers to motivational posters and stacks of Garofalo's The Local News. Two employees staffed it. And whenever the phone rang—a cell phone, interestingly—the woman who answered announced brightly, "Team Publishing!" Neither employee could account for the whereabouts of Hreish, the CFO.
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"He's going to be in and out today," said a woman identifying herself as Debbie. But they could not provide a time when he might return or how he might be contacted. When asked for a Team Publishing business card, they provided one bearing an address far across town—5942 Edinger Ave., Ste. 108-A, which houses Noal Jewelry Design. The man behind the counter there said he had heard of Team Publishing but refused to answer any other questions.
"I sell jewelry here," he said, shrugging. "I don't know about anything else."
Ghassan Hreish is the son of Nouha Hreish, a jeweler well-known in Huntington Beach for her activities with the Kiwanis Club and the chamber of commerce. In 1999, while president of the Huntington Beach Kiwanis chapter, she received the chamber of commerce's Athena Award for "her management and leadership skills in her successful business."
But Nouha Hreish said she had no idea of her son's whereabouts. "He's out of town," she said on the same day Hreish's staff said he was going to stop by the office; she then declined to discuss anything about the business history of Team Publishing. Asked how the business ended up as a tenant of Garofalo, however, she speculated that her son "must have got a good price on the rent. And these days, when you get a good deal, you go with it."