"It is vitally important that we impress upon our society that freedom and democracy will survive and prosper if each of us takes personal responsibility for our actions and ourselves."
—George L. Argyros, 2000
The above quotation is featured prominently in a glossy Chapman University brochure mailed last week to school alums. Titled "Inspiring Others to Dream," the 10-page, full-color publication lauds all things Argyros—the county's most obnoxious businessman, second-most powerful developer (honors here to Irvine Co. chieftain Don Bren) and top Republican money-raiser.
"Chapman is well on the way to becoming a truly great university, and this would not have been possible without a great leader: GEORGE L. ARGYROS," says the brochure. "After 26 years as our chairman, George will be leaving that position to serve our country as ambassador to Spain. Thankfully, President Bush will allow George to retain his membership on our board of directors."
The brochure includes shots of Argyros meeting with the school's board of trustees in 1976, speaking at the school in 1993, and standing next to a giant bronze bust of his own giant head in 1998. Chapman's love for Argyros comes from his heavy donations for such buildings as the Argyros Forum and the George L. Argyros School of Business and Economics.
Certainly it's delicious to imagine so many university officials and faculty genuflecting before OC's Greek Tycoon—timidly bowing before the balding man, trembling as they kiss his ring. But outside Chapman's ivory towers, Argyros is renowned as a colossal chiseler who made millions by stealing pennies.
A billionaire whose $30 million in fund-raising for George W. Bush earned him the Spanish ambassadorship, everything Argyros touches turns to gold—or shit, depending on whether he has trampled you in the process.
During his tenure as chairman of the board of Apria Healthcare Group Inc., Securities and Exchange Commission investigators allege the company filed an astonishing 900,000 false billing claims with a federal medical-assistance program. Apria has denied any wrongdoing, calling the claims "errors." Argyros, for his part, left the company in 1998, shortly after a whistleblower squealed to the feds about the billings.
Much closer to Argyros' heart is Arnel Management Co., the Costa Mesa-based property-management company that investigators say spent the past two decades bilking thousands of Vietnamese and Hispanic tenants out of millions of dollars. The district attorney's office spent 15 months investigating and documenting the allegations, ultimately concluding that Argyros' company Arnel was responsible for illegally withholding tenants' security deposits and overcharging them for repairs and imaginary expenses. The Weekly's R. Scott Moxley also uncovered evidence that Argyros set up a utility company in his Arnel offices to charge excessive utility rates to the tenants.
"These are not rich people by any means" was how former DA investigator Stephen Douglass, who worked the Arnel case, described Arnel's victims. "They're living paycheck to paycheck for the most part."
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Argyros "is personally liable and should be barred" from similar business practices, wrote Deputy District Attorney Wendy Brough, who headed the investigation. Or, rather, she headed the investigation right up to the point when she filed criminal charges against Argyros and Arnel in February 2001. Then, 90 minutes later, her boss, DA Tony Rackauckas—who benefited handsomely from Argyros' campaign contributions—yanked the charges. Brough also doubted Argyros would reform himself unless prosecuted harshly, noting his "long history of [similar] violations dating to 1980."
In the end, the state attorney general's office agreed but levied only a tiny $1.5 million fine against Arnel "and all its executives"—a category that, of course, includes Arnel CEO and Chapman University benefactor George L. Argyros. But the state's vague reference—rather than precise identification—of Argyros gave the U.S. Senate what it needed to give the president what he wanted after Sept. 11: senators confirmed Argyros' ambassadorial nomination just days after the attorney general's decision. A $96 million class action lawsuit filed by tenants against Argyros is pending.
"We have an obligation to teach young people what responsibility is all about, what freedom's all about," says Argyros in the brochure trumpeting his "leadership" and "responsibility."
Here's what Argyros has to teach us about responsibility: give enough money to those in power, be they presidents or colleges, and they will give you what you want—fame, stature, credibility, power and protection from prosecution. If the George L. Argyros School of Business and Economics teaches that, students will be getting more than their money's worth. They'll be getting what universities everywhere claim to inculcate in their charges but seldom do: veritas—truth.