In a Newport Beach café not far from the little white house he rents in Newport Heights, Thomas “Randy” Orbach talks freely about a “crazy” time in his life.
Online readers of the Weekly may know something about it. Orbach, a former investment banker, is the subject of a March 3, 2010, Navel Gazing blog post titled “Ex-Bush Official's Son Headed to Prison for ocregister.com Harassment.” The story describes how Orbach, the son of a former UC Riverside chancellor and George W. Bush administration Department of Energy director, was sentenced to five years in state prison for repeatedly harassing and physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend. A judge later suspended the sentence and allowed Orbach to spend his days working as a financial adviser in Laguna Niguel and a year's worth of nights in the private Seal Beach city jail.
But after leaving jail, Orbach was busted for violating parole by contacting the woman through The Orange County Register's online real-estate listings, which included a “Send to a Friend” function that allowed a user to create an email address, enter a message for someone who might be interested in a particular property, and then send the listing to that person. Orbach used it to send his ex personal messages that devolved from apologetic and mournful to insulting and vulgar. Orbach also met with his ex-girlfriend in person. All of it was enough to break his probation and send him to state prison for the full five-year stretch, although he got a year off for the time already served in Seal Beach.
Now paddling a piece of breakfast pastry on his plate, the 51-year-old father of two who at one time led a $10 million company he founded only to see it implode, makes it clear he did the things that he was accused of doing and he deserved to go to prison.
But Orbach swears he's not the man he was back then.
“When it came to guys in prison, I used to think, 'Fuck 'em; lock 'em up and throw away the key,'” he says, not long after having described his latest venture, which came to him while he sat in prison.
Called the Medici Foundation, the nonprofit will serve as a bank that converts charitable contributions into job opportunities in inner cities and places such as Santa Ana, Orbach explains. The idea is to ultimately help some of those he served alongside in the California corrections system. “We can make a lot of difference in people's lives,” he says.
He knows—his is one of them.
* * *
Orbach was born in Boston, where his physicist father Raymond Orbach had been teaching at MIT. Randy was just a year old when his parents and sister moved to Pacific Palisades so they would be closer to Los Angeles-born Raymond's new job as a professor at UCLA.
The younger Orbach graduated from Pacific Palisades High School and attended UCLA, where his father rose to become the provost and later the chancellor at UC Riverside, whose science library would be named in his honor. The elder Orbach spent eight years of the Bush administration overseeing the Department of Energy. When the Energy Policy Act of 2005 created the position of Under Secretary for Science, George W. Bush nominated Ray as the country's first; he served in that role from 2006 to '09. He's now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Randy was different. While the father had no interest in business, the son had none in science. Nor did the younger Orbach like LA much, moving to Orange County in the mid-1980s after he'd “had enough.” He was hired at a local office of Shearson-Lehman but despised working with mortgages. So he walked in cold to Drexel Burnham Lambert and got hired “on the spot.”
He married in 1987, and the union produced two children before ending in divorce. Dylan, 19, now lives in the Lake Tahoe area, and Nicole, 24, is a hair stylist in Newport Beach.
Orbach stayed at Drexel Burnham Lambert for four years before moving on to the Orange County offices of Union Bank, Mellon Bank and Merrill Lynch. In 1998, he started his own “boutique bank,” with clients who, Orbach says, were so wealthy they did not need to borrow money, the mechanism that is the lifeblood of banks. Instead, he found himself simply managing wealth, and those he started the bank with were using it as a “country club hangout.” So Orbach sold his interest in 2000. “I saw the writing on the wall; it was never going to grow,” he says. “It's kind of sad because we started from scratch. It was a great learning experience.”
He founded TRO Advisors Inc. in 2002, and the name eventually evolved to Pacific Financial Advisors Inc., the Laguna Niguel company he was allowed to go back to work at while serving his original jail sentence in Seal Beach. By then, he'd also served as vice president of the Santa Ana College Foundation and was a member of the Rancho Santiago College District Foundation. And while working on the trust-fund side at Merrill Lynch, he had overseen 20 different charitable funds and family foundations at once.
He's confident those experiences will serve him well at his nonprofit foundation.
“I know the legal structure,” he says.
* * *
Orbach says he does not like to dwell on his dark days, but he believes it is important to put it all in proper context.
Despite coming from a distinguished family and having made millions upon millions for his bank clients, Orbach also had a wild side. In the early 2000s, he violated a family court's order, illegally fired a gun and was cruel to animals, the latter earning him jail time.
After he began dating a woman in 2006, loved ones around him told him they saw red flags, Orbach now says. That was confirmed by Shannon Parnell, Orbach's dear friend of 10 years.
Parnell and then-single Orbach met when they were living in the same Irvine complex, started seeing each other romantically, and were on and off after that. She went to visit Orbach in prison and put him up for about a month in her home when he needed a place to stay after his parole.
“We never argued,” Parnell says of Orbach. “He was never a violent person. He was never yelling and screaming.”
“Then he got with this woman.”
According to the Weekly's earlier report, Orbach hit her with a pipe, punched her in the face, slashed the tires on her car, threw M-80 explosives on her roof, and sent her countless emails and messages.
He says the “M-80” was a Piccolo Pete he meant to throw in her back yard, but it landed on her roof, starting a small fire that a neighbor put out with a garden hose. That earned Orbach one of his two felony strikes, for arson. The other was for stalking.
“I shouldn't have done it,” he says.
Around the time Orbach's personal life was in shambles, his business was imploding thanks to the global recession.
“I wish I could say I survived the recession,” he says. “I think I had a nervous breakdown.”
Many clients at Pacific Financial Advisors defaulted on their loans, making Orbach's company on the hook to investors and forcing him to sue some close friends and business associates. “It was a perfect storm,” he recalls. “I spent seven years building a business, and through no fault of my own, it just vaporized.”
He says he lost $10 million and his house. After being cut loose from the Seal Beach jail, he immediately contacted his ex-girlfriend. He got busted for felony stalking. That probation violation made him eligible to serve his complete prison sentence.
The arson count alone had him originally looking at up to seven years in state prison. Combined with all the other charges against him, the maximum sentence could have been 14 years. Prosecutors offered him five years if he'd plead guilty.
Orbach could not contemplate the offer in the relatively comfortable Seal Beach jail, but in Orange County's Central Jail, which he found “old and disgusting,” and Theo Lacy Facility, which he called “brutal.” Since he was accused of two felony strikes, he was kept with the “hardcore” inmates, who he said would look him over, puzzled, and ask, “What are you doing here?”
“The guards are insane,” Orbach says of the county jailers. “The stress is incredible. There is always tension there—among the guards and the inmates. The food is terrible.”
It was so bad that when his lawyer said he might be able to shave off some of those five years (really four years with time served) while Orbach stayed in county, the inmate instead took the prosecution offer because “I would rather go to prison for four years than spend another year in county.”
Orbach would do his prison stretch at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and the Jamestown Fire Camp. As at county, he'd be told by guards and prisoners he did not belong there. “I told them I deserved to be here,” Orbach says. “I don't think I deserved that amount of time, but I deserved to be there. I could have kept myself out of it. It was a form of respect, too. I took ownership of it; I manned up. I would not stay in protective custody. I did not take the easy way out.”
He learned to carry himself a certain way, roll with prison politics and keep from being drawn into one-on-one drama, although he discovered “when there is a riot, you are expected to join in.”
Orbach read a lot and provided books and legal assistance to fellow inmates. He found many came from nothing and went back to nothing. All they wanted was a chance, especially a chance for a job.
That's when he hit upon the idea for his foundation.
* * *
The Medici family was at one time the richest family in Italy, collecting wealth in the Mugello region of the Tuscan countryside in the 13th century; gaining prominence as a political dynasty, banking family and royal house in the Republic of Florence during the late 14th century; and seeing Medici Bank rise to the largest in Europe during the 15th century. Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), who controlled the government in Florence despite no official title, used his family's wealth to support artists and sculptors and build churches and large libraries, which he filled with his own books. After his death, Cosimo was named Pater Palrige (father of his country).
Orbach read about the Medici family while locked up. Before his release from prison in August 2013, he started the paperwork to create his nonprofit Medici Foundation. “I thought it would be cool to call it that,” he explains.
The foundation's mission is to generate wealth not for the haves, but for the have-nots, including those behind bars who truly want to make their lives better once they are sprung. It isn't based in corporate offices, as were Orbach's banks of the past, but his little white rental in Newport Heights. Total staff: 1.
“We're getting some momentum,” he says excitedly as we drain our coffees. “I want to raise a good amount of money so we can be self-sustaining and loan funds from [the foundation]. We would be like a bank or university endowment. We would rely on investments, and my investments would be loans.”
From his past life in finance, he knows those who run major corporations want to encourage businesses owned by minorities. But the risk, stigma and charges of favoritism make it problematic to directly fund such ventures, which many banks won't even touch. That's where the Medici Foundation would step in, soliciting donations from corporations and wealthy individuals, and then doling out loans to franchisees who locate or expand their businesses in poorer areas.
Orbach concedes the foundation would not be able to place covenants on loans that require the hiring of former prison inmates, but because so many seeking jobs in the targeted communities have arrest records, “the odds are a lot better” that they will be among those hired for new jobs.
“I want to be a benefit to places such as Santa Ana, Oakland and Fresno,” he says.
During his former banking days, many of his clients were new-car dealers who operated several lots, sometimes in multiple states. Orbach believes they would be perfect fits for the Medici Foundation. A dealer might find it difficult to open a new store in Santa Ana, he throws out as an example. Bank financing could be difficult to acquire, and an automaker—Orbach uses Ford in his example—would not want to show favoritism to a particular potential dealer by providing start-up costs. But Ford could contribute to Medici, which in turn could loan the dealer funds.
“They are great clients, and they always need money,” said Orbach of auto dealers, who he is convinced will be “great for the foundation” along with businesses in the service industry, especially food service.
There is one hurdle: the Internal Revenue Service, which since the Great Recession has been wary of nonprofit banks. Then again, the government realizes private banks are not lending these days, or at least not much. That is among what has been blamed for slow to no job growth, especially in places Orbach would be looking to help.
The Medici Foundation founder is confident he can convince the IRS its loans make business sense. All he says he needs is for four or five corporations or wealthy individuals to get on board, and the foundation's future will be set.
When he has managed to make his pitch to potential investors, Orbach reports, “Everyone loves it. They think it's a great idea.”
But Orbach admits that helping his fellow unfortunate man is not the only reason he's gone the nonprofit route. “Seeing where my tax dollars have gone the past 30 years, I really don't want to pay taxes anymore,” he says. “The amount of money we're wasting is terrible.” He saw it firsthand in the California corrections system, quick to remind me the prison-guard union is among the state's biggest.
Orbach swears he does not miss his former fancy cars, corporate suites and big house, which he lost around the time of his $10 million business implosion.
“I have such a different mindset now,” he says. “I like the simplicity. I've slayed my dragons; I don't need to be the next Wells Fargo.”
(Parnell, who stuck by Orbach through it all, paused a moment when asked if he's the same person he was when he got in trouble. “I'd say he's more mellow,” she finally answers. “He's slowed down a little bit and reassessed things.”)
Orbach credits his children, parents and friends for helping keep his priorities straight.
“Friends who found out what happened looked me up [in prison] and wrote me letters, which was nice,” he says. “They would say, 'I will not judge you; I know who you are.' I had some great visits. I have really great friends.”
He knows he disappointed his family, but, he says, “My kids have been great.” Also, “My mom and dad have been unbelievable. They have been my rock. They are incredible, so supportive.”
(His parents were in London at press time and could not be reached for comment. Raymond Orbach reportedly said recently of his son to The Orange County Register, “He did some foolish things. We hope he can get back on his feet and contribute to society. I hope people understand he's as honest as can be. He knows it's going to be tough getting his life back.”)
The Medici Foundation and a positive view of the future were not the only positive things to have come out of Randy Orbach's incarceration. He emerged in great physical shape, building up to 10,000 pushups a day.
“I was only able to do 20 pushups when I went in,” he notes.
“I'd rather go to a gym.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.