No More Mayor Nice Guy
The Committee to Elect Dave Garofalo still has $11,240.84 in its account, but most of that was raised at a gala brunch in Garofalo's honor last December. Back then, he was still electable; now, after just one year as the ceremonial mayor of Huntington Beach, Garofalo's political future looks . . . what's worse than grim? Citizens are working for his recall. Newspapers have called for his resignation. The city attorney says conflicts of interest disqualify him from voting on almost every important issue, and his subsequent abstentions make him useless to the developers and businesses that funded his run for office. His City Council colleagues unanimously ordered him stripped of the contract to publish Huntington Beach's tourism guide, which was the centerpiece of his publishing business. He was grant-deeded a luxurious new house by a developer with millions of dollars in business pending before the council. Garofalo is being investigated by Orange County's district attorney and grand jury, as well as California's Fair Political Practices Commission and Franchise Tax Board. Two other sources tell the Weekly that FBI and IRS agents have questioned them about Garofalo.
No wonder Garofalo says he's looking forward to the Dec. 4 City Council meeting, when he'll rotate out of the mayor's seat. No wonder he's longing for the end of his council term in 2002, as though it's a small light at the end of a particularly dark tunnel.
"I'm going to be out of office in 24 months," Garofalo noted wearily on Nov. 7 —Election Day—while trying to explain his way out of his latest controversy: the allegation made that morning that he threatened an elderly woman, Natalie Carlson, who was bidding for the tourism-guide contract he had lost (see "I'm Going to Get You," Nov. 17). "I get to stop being mayor in four weeks, and I get to be a human being."
But Garofalo quickly made it clear—if it wasn't already—that he didn't mean that "human being" stuff in a serene or tolerant way. He meant it in the ruthless, survival-of-the-fittest sense. "When I attempt to rebuild my business, I'm going to be aggressive in the marketplace," he promised.
Garofalo's publishing business has declined along with his political fortunes because newspaper investigations led by the Weekly discovered that Garofalo concistently cast council votes in favor of developers and businesses that bought advertising in his publications, the tourism guide, a Chamber of Commerce directory and a semimonthly newspaper called The Local News. Under pressure from his council colleagues to make a full disclosure of his business dealings, Garofalo instead opened the June 19 council meeting by announcing that he had "completely divested" himself of his publishing interests. He has never specified what that means, however, and still bristles when asked for details or evidence.
"I'm telling the world as I'm telling you: I'm tired of the abuse that you folks have given me," he told reporters who had witnessed Carlson's tearful allegations before the stunned members of the Conference and Visitor's Bureau board. "I've drawn a line in the sand, and I intend to aggressively fight back."
Garofalo says that handing his gavel to the next Huntington Beach mayor, Pam Julien, will finally free him to counterattack. "Being mayor, you don't have many rights," he said bitterly. "The mayor shouldn't raise his voice. The mayor shouldn't look at anyone angrily. The mayor is an ultimate role model. But soon I won't be mayor anymore."
Reminded that he will still be a councilman—pending that recall, anyway —and that Huntington Beach neither grants extra privileges to mayors nor places additional restrictions on them, Garofalo backed off a bit. "Well, there's really not a big difference 'cause we're all equal," he acknowledged. "But I'll certainly have a lot more freedom to attempt to build a business and make a living and attempt to respond to critics or make comments than I think has been appropriate as mayor of the 16th-largest city in California."
Ironically, Garofalo delivered this rant while standing in the very same place—the Cielo Mare room of the Huntington Beach Waterfront Hilton Hotel—where he had laid out his grand four-point plan for his mayoral "administration" at that fund-raising brunch last December. His address then was sprinkled with such optimistic words as "marketing" and "venture capital" and "economic development." He promised to assemble a 15-member "cabinet" to advise him. He suggested organizing a huge rally at Golden West College to motivate the community. He called for civility—although he still couldn't resist describing anyone who opposed him as "insane" and members of "a mean-spirited vocal minority."
These days, it's hard to believe how much fanfare, money and political power attended Garofalo's induction as mayor. Some of it was kind of hard to believe even then. A marching band and dancing girls transformed Garofalo's swearing-in ceremony at city hall on Dec. 6, 1999, into a campy floorshow. But a more convincing clue to Garofalo's political potential —the most likely scenario being that he would run for county supervisor in 2002—came behind the closed doors of the Cielo Mare room on Dec. 12, when an array of heavyweight political strategists and campaign bankrollers showed up to run their mouths and open their wallets. Attendees included Garofalo's longtime benefactor, businessman Ed Laird, along with Pacific Liberty Bank president Rich Ganulin, Lincoln Club president Mike Capaldi, Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and Waterfront Hilton president Steve Bone, who charged Garofalo only $2,001.24 for the whole catered affair. Megadeveloper George Argyros didn't make an appearance but was listed as one of the hosts.
Garofalo brimmed with giddy confidence. "If I'm alive and worthy and people want me," he told the Weekly then, "I'm sure I will [run for higher office]."
But all the glory and importance Garofalo sought for himself inevitably prompted investigation, and Garofalo's long-standing practice of mixing his profit with his politics simply couldn't stand up to the scrutiny. Throughout, Garofalo has characterized himself as the victim, insisting that those who have illuminated the worrisome overlap between his personal and governmental interests are either desperate publishing-business competitors or ruthless political opponents.
During the past several months, however, most of the investigating has been taken over by government watchdog agencies. It may be a measure of how far Garofalo's political stock has tumbled that two of those agencies—the Orange County district attorney's office and grand jury—are now hard at work after previously determining that Garofalo's behavior warranted no investigation.
"I've been interviewed several times about Dave by DA investigators," says Charles Bouley III, who worked as a graphic artist for Garofalo's publishing company for three years. "I know of others who've been interviewed, too. The investigators ask lots of questions about the financial procedures of Dave's businesses, along with lots of questions about how he got his houses."
A source close to the DA investigations dismisses concerns that Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas —a Republican who attended Garofalo's mayoral coronation last year—will whitewash this probe.
"If nothing else, it's reached the point where prosecuting Garofalo will be more politically advantageous to Rackauckas than not prosecuting him," said the source. "The pendulum has swung a long way in one year."
It's certainly brought a whole new sensibility to City Council meetings. Suddenly sensitive to conflicts of interest, council members have been examining their connections more closely and abstaining from votes at a drastically increased rate. And the values of the citizens in the audience seem to have shifted, too. When Heather Stevens and Brittany Nobles, two eighth-grade students from Fulton Middle School, dropped by the Oct. 16 City Council meeting to earn extra credit for their social studies class, they ended up staying for nearly two hours so they could get the autograph of their new hero: Sandra Cole, the woman who had just presented Garofalo with recall papers.
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