It was no surprise late last month when Orange County billionaire George Argyros was named the likely next U.S. ambassador to Spain. For months, rumors have circulated through Washington, D.C., and California political circles that Argyros—a man who has no obvious diplomatic skills but is a prodigious Republican contributor—would nab a plum government post under President George W. Bush. Nevertheless, reporters at both the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register bungled a surprisingly simple story.
On March 28, Times political reporter Jean O. Pasco cited two unnamed Argyros friends contacted by the U.S. State Department in the course of a "routine" background check on Argyros for an "unspecified ambassadorship." It's unclear why Pasco—a longtime favorite of local Republican strategists—failed to mention Spain. Three days earlier, the Baltimore Sun had reported what political insiders had been confidently saying for weeks: Argyros will probably go to Spain. Even a March 28 United Press International report from Washington noted that he was the "ambassador designee to Spain."
The next day, Register political reporter Martin Wisckol followed up with his own Argyros story, acting as if he hadn't seen Pasco's article. "United Press International on Wednesday reported the appointment," wrote Wisckol, "and several of Argyros' friends said he has been under consideration."
But even a ninth grade journalism class would be startled by the most egregious omission in the Argyros coverage: Argyros is currently under investigation by the district attorney's consumer-protection unit.
But never mind the facts. Both Pasco and Wisckol touted the businessman as a civic hero unblemished by scandal or wrongdoing. Argyros is merely, they noted, chairman of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace and of Chapman University's trustee board; onetime owner of AirCal and the Seattle Mariners; and the man behind efforts to build an international commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
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But in addition to these civic achievements, Argyros' flagship business, Arnel Management Co. of Costa Mesa, is being investigated by the DA's consumer-protection unit. County prosecutors say they found thousands of incidents in which the property-management company used a "systematic rip-off" scheme to overcharge tenants for repairs, shortchange them on deposit refunds and bill them for fictitious expenses. Late last month, lawyers filed a class-action suit to recover money on behalf of residents in 18 local Arnel apartment complexes.
Though they portray themselves as fiercely independent, Orange County's two daily newspapers have long and shameful histories when it comes to protecting local political heavyweights. For example, Pasco's Times ignored the DA's undeniably noteworthy investigation into Arnel for 16 days. (Last year, the Times also remained silent for more than six months on serious corruption charges against former Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo.)
Wisckol's Arnel omission is more puzzling. It was his paper that broke the fraud story as front-page news in early February. In fact, he ends his story with this saccharine comment from Republican activist Mark Chapin Johnson: Argyros "has the credibility to do honor to the position."
It's no coincidence that the true depths of Argyros' "credibility" likely won't be known until after he is formally nominated. Prosecutors were set to file their lawsuit against Arnel in early February when Argyros was first pegged for the job in Madrid. But county District Attorney Tony Rackauckas—an Argyros buddy—intervened and put the case on hold. That was more than 55 days ago; Rackauckas has since acknowledged that he wants to resolve the matter privately. DA spokesperson Tori Richards declined to comment on the status of the case.