Photo by Jeanne RiceOn Dec. 2, Huntington Beach residents received the first in what's likely to become a series of pro-Wal-Mart mailers from a new group called "Save Our Schools, Save Our City." The mailer pleads with residents to vote no on a March 2000 ballot measure designed to prevent the city from allowing Wal-Mart to build a store on the site of a closed grammar school. The reason: "We need more revenue, not more houses."
The back of the mailer—printed and distributed by Wal-Mart—contains a list of supporters, including all four City Council members who voted for the Wal-Mart project, and a return address for those who want more information.
The address is that of Coatings Resources, a paint-manufacturing plant located in one of Huntington Beach's light-industrial neighborhoods. It has become the war room for the well-financed pro-Wal-Mart campaign:on Nov. 17, Coatings hosted a strategy meeting for Wal-Mart supporters, including two City Council members and two planning commissioners.
That Coatings Resources is now the headquarters of the pro-Wal-Mart movement isn't surprising: its owner is Ed Laird.
Seldom noted in the press, Laird is one of the county's secret Santas, moving through powerful circles, giving thousands of dollars to politicians. Along with such luminaries as bazillionaire developer George Argyros—the man behind the Wal-Mart and the effort to build an international airport at El Toro—Laird sits on the board of directors of the Orange County Business Coalition and the Lincoln Club, the rich and powerful wing of the county GOP dominated by developers and big-business owners. To men like Laird and Argyros, moving a massive Wal-Mart into a diminutive neighborhood is business as usual.
Laird is especially tight with recently elevated Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo. Garofalo's day job is editing the Local News, where his boss is Laird, the paper's owner. It's filled with fluffy stories (a recent issue included press releases on polenta and court reporting and a reprint from the World Almanac on flag etiquette) and pages of ads boosting the city's auto dealerships and companies—many of which also appear in Garofalo's campaign-finance forms.
The relationship doesn't end there. Laird and Garofalo also sit on the board of directors of the controversial Pacific Liberty Bank, where City Council members Garofalo, Shirley Dettloff and Pam Julien invested thousands of dollars to open the bank in May. Laird invested $100,000 in the bank—the same as Argyros and Christopher Gibbs, who owns PLC Development and also has projects pending before the city. Garofalo and Laird say there's no conflict of interest, and the city attorney's office has supported that opinion.
In addition to his two companies and the Local News, land records show Laird and his wife own nine pieces of property in Orange, Kern and Sacramento counties, valued together at more than $4 million. The same records show the Lairds sold five pieces of property worth $2 million in the past six years. Obviously a man of considerable wealth, planning commissioner Laird's state-mandated personal-disclosure form reveals none of the above, except his Coatings Resources plant. The disclosure form also lacks the Local News and Laird's $100,000 stock investment in Pacific Liberty Bank.
Laird is a true political junkie—a description he despises. "That is so insulting," Laird told the Weekly in October 1998. (Laird did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story.) "I believe in the process. We need good government, and I don't mind paying for good government."
And pay he does. "He's a household name around here," was how one employee at the county Registrar of Voters office described Laird. In 1998 alone, Laird doled out $112,000 to national, state, county and city candidates, usually to the right-wing bubbleheads who personify the modern Republican Party. For example, Laird wrote checks to governor wannabe Dan Lungren ($35,000), Huntington Beach city attorney Gail Hutton ($300), U.S. Congressman Newt Gingrich ($1,000) and 2nd District Supervisor Jim Silva ($1,000).
Silva is one of Laird's pet projects. Photos from the 1999 Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce annual dinner show the two in black tie, sitting at the same table. During Silva's contentious 1998 re-election campaign, Laird described Silva as "a good candidate serving the will of the people." Between 1994 and 1998, Laird, his three brothers—who also work at Coatings Resources—and four other employees contributed more than $12,000 to the man who, during board meetings, reads questions from prepared scripts.
It's easy to see Silva's attraction to a man like Laird. Besides sharing ideologies, Silva sat for some years on the Air Quality Management District (AQMD) board. Laird, whose company rests financially on a foundation of highly toxic lacquers and enamels, benefited from Silva's votes to lessen environmental regulations on small businesses.
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"We make the paint for Barbie's lips" is how Laird describes his work at Coatings Resources. The company does indeed make paint for toys and other household items—and it's a very dirty business. Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records show the company releases thousands of pounds of noxious hydrocarbons—toluene, xylene, methyl ethyl ketone—into the air every year. The releases were within federal guidelines.
"He's a good guy, but Ed's the reason we need an EPA," said a source who described himself as a friend of Laird—and then requested anonymity. "He's right on the issues, but, sheesh, he makes you glad there's someone looking over his shoulder."
For years, as chairman of the 2,000-member Small Business Coalition, Laird battled environmentally progressive AQMD regulations. In 1997, Laird heavily pressured not only Silva but also Nell Soto, an AQMD commissioner and Pomona Democrat. The issue was then-AQMD executive director—and critic of dirty companies—James Lents. Laird wanted Lents gone. Laird even spoke before the AQMD board, pleading with the commissioners to sack Lents. In June, Silva and Soto provided the final votes to do just that.
Three months later, the EPA began investigating three companies for allegedly violating clean-air standards. One of Laird's companies, Air Quality Consultants, provided consulting assistance to all three firms. Whether by coincidence or—as Laird maintains—revenge, the EPA asked Laird for a mountain of documents to determine whether his consulting included tips on how to circumvent federal environmental standards. Laird bitched and moaned but complied. An EPA spokesperson said the investigations remain open and should conclude sometime next year.