Photo by David KawashimaIn the popular imagination, the battle over the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is supposed to be Orange County's civil war—that's how one anti-airport leader put it when he said, “Blood has been spilled for far less.” In Newport Beach, a small but immensely powerful cadre of real-estate developers has spent millions of dollars pushing for a mammoth new international cargo and passenger airport at El Toro. In South County—where residents fear they'll live under the new airport's flight paths—several anti-airport organizations have mustered an army tens of thousands strong, transformed city halls into centers of anti-airport activism, and talked of seceding from the county should the planned airport actually look like something more than a distant mirage.
The rhetoric is charged. Bill Kogerman, the feisty executive director of the anti-airport Taxpayers for Responsible Planning (TRP), calls airport backers “repugnant,” “arrogant” “liars” who spew “garbage” and are “hell-bent” on overdevelopment. On the other side, pro-airport activists such as Dave Ellis and Bruce Nestande are equally shrill. They label their adversaries “childish,” “irresponsible,” “ignorant” “elitists” who “try every trick” to advance a “no-growth, anti-job agenda.” Accusations of elaborate espionage schemes and wanton illegalities abound. Leaders in both camps eagerly tell audiences stories of alleged physical threats they've faced. Rarely does a week pass without someone voicing harsh words usually heard only in a combat zone or a Balboa Peninsula bar at last call.
But the overheated rhetorical war masks a secret so disturbing that efforts to reveal it roused angry threats of legal action. What is it that the public isn't supposed to know? Out of view, the businessmen who operate the campaigns for and against the proposed airport are close allies on other highly questionable local real-estate deals. They share financial interests, personal bonds, political ideologies and a startlingly similar—if not identical—affinity for the Newport Beach developers who are pushing most aggressively for a new airport near the heart of residential Orange County. There's nothing illegal in those ties, but they sure make you think: if the fight over El Toro is a war, it's a weird one.
There have been signs of weirdness all along. One came in March, when TRP's Kogerman told The Orange County Register that his group—founded six years ago as a “single-issue” grassroots organization to fight the proposed airport—had matured. The group is “more worldly now,” Kogerman admitted. The consequences of the philosophical change were almost immediately apparent. In the June/July issue of TRP's newsletter, the group swerved dramatically from its single-minded anti-airport mission to effectively endorse a Newport Beach developer's controversial plans for a high-density commercial and residential development at the historic oceanfront Dana Point Headlands.
The unanticipated move set off a near revolt among anti-airport activists in Dana Point. The local paper published several letters from disturbed residents. Longtime city resident Geoff Lachner said TRP's endorsement of the Headlands developers was “outrageous, ridiculous” and showed TRP's “true colors” as pro-developer. Another resident, Jack Roberts, said it was, in its most favorable light, a “strategic blunder” that had unnecessarily alienated members of Dana Point's reasonable-growth movement. For years, Roberts has simultaneously fought the proposed airport and overdevelopment of the Headlands, the last large open coastal space in South County. The affable volunteer for the group Save the Headlands was “shocked” that TRP would align itself with the Headlands developer. After all, TRP's grassroots battle against politically powerful Newport Beach developers at El Toro mirrors the uphill fight of grassroots citizens in Dana Point against politically powerful Newport Beach developers at the Headlands.
Baffled, Roberts called and wrote Kogerman, politely asking for an explanation. Kogerman replied contemptuously, suggesting that the Headlands developers—a consortium headed by the family that owns the Times Mirror Corp.—are more concerned about the project's negative environmental impact than local citizens such as Roberts. He also inexplicably claimed that the developers had been wrongly “intimidated” by citizens opposing the project. After calling Roberts “counterproductive and illogical,” Kogerman ended his letter brusquely. “We will prevail without you and those of your associates of a like mindset,” he wrote. “I trust I have made my position sufficiently lucid precluding further comment on this subject.”
“I never thought I'd see something like this,” Roberts said. “We should all be working together. I just don't understand it.”
Why would TRP—which has lost two countywide efforts to stop the airport at the ballot box—suddenly take on a new, equally controversial issue unrelated to El Toro? Why would TRP formally side with wily Newport Beach developers over the interests of anti-airport Dana Point residents, who have twice voted overwhelmingly against the developer's self-serving plans for the Headlands? Why would Kogerman seemingly abuse his influence with tens of thousands of anti-airport residents in South County? And, perhaps most important, with a critical third anti-airport initiative scheduled for March 2000, why would TRP take a stance that risks splintering its membership base, a sizable chunk of which is Dana Point residents who oppose powerful developers—at the proposed airport and at the Headlands?
Campaign-disclosure reports reveal that TRP's odd endorsement of the Headlands development came shortly after the Headlands' Newport Beach-based developers gave Kogerman's anti-airport group at least $5,800—an eyebrow-raising fact that has gone unreported in the daily press.
One explanation for Kogerman's strange behavior on the Headlands project could be quite simple—and, as he might put it, worldly: money. In the past four years, state financial records show, TRP paid Kogerman, his wife and two top aides more than $200,908; that figure does not include scores of expense reimbursements. Kogerman's money was paid through his corporate consulting firm, Trans Pacific Associates. He originally volunteered but began taking payments because, he said, he “could no longer afford” to donate his services.
Kogerman recoiled at questions about TRP's financial relationship with the Headlands developers and said he has “never had public or private discussions with any Headlands developers or their associates.” He maintains that his anti-airport group was not influenced by the money and that the “obvious motivation” for the contributions is that the Headlands “lies right under the approach path to El Toro and the considerable value of that property would be substantially diminished by a commercial airport.” All true. But another equally obvious motivation for the developer was to weaken public resistance to their commercial project by using Kogerman's influence with tens of thousands of South County residents. Kogerman willingly gave them that valuable influence after contributions were made. Another obvious point: TRP could have taken the developers' money for the anti-airport cause without then promoting the developers' narrow interests at the Headlands.
Kogerman is himself a man who sees money at the root of political corruption—when it comes to other people. Only last year, Kogerman bluntly ridiculed and questioned the motives of former Federal Aviation Administration official David Hinson for taking an honorarium from Orange County developers before making a pro-El Toro Airport speech. “What we do not fully understand is what his position on El Toro might have been before he got the big bucks,” Kogerman said. “After all, this is about the big bucks.”
The ugly specter of a potential quid pro quo between TRP and the Headlands developers raises a serious question: Can we trust the businessmen who are running the anti-airport campaign?
Based on the colorful and often inflammatory anti-developer rhetoric emanating from the anti-airport movement, you could easily get the impression that groups like TRP, Clean Air/No Jets, and Citizens for Safe and Healthy Communities are run by well-established environmentalists and determined reasonable-growth advocates—people fundamentally opposed to making life easier for real-estate developers. You'd be wrong. The businessmen who have taken control of the anti-airport fund-raising and public-relations campaigns have long, well-documented (if unpublicized) relationships with real-estate developer interests and, in some cases, direct connections with the pro-airport campaign and Mr. Airport himself, Newport Beach developer George Argyros.
Only at Larry Agran's Irvine-based anti-airport group Project 99 do you find time-tested anti-developer activists. It's laughable to think that Agran, who has fought numerous heart-wrenching battles against sprawl, would ever lead a developer-backed political action-committee against grassroots citizens groups. Sadly, that is not the case elsewhere in the anti-airport movement.
During the 1990s, high-ranking members of the anti-airport leadership—including Dana Point and Monarch Beach businessmen Jim Davy, Tristian Krogius, Forrest Owen and Richard Mackaig—have been associated with three aggressive developer-backed political-action committees: Dana Point United, Yes on the Headlands and CARE Dana Point. Though the committees claimed to be grassroots citizens groups, their stances suspiciously echoed those of Newport Beach developers. State and local campaign-finance records might offer an explanation: the committees were quietly funded by the likes of the decidedly pro-airport Building Industries Association (BIA) of Southern California and other developer allies and lobbying organizations. Despite their oft-stated anger at the men pushing the airport, the anti-airport leadership made a particularly puzzling choice for their consultant for CARE Dana Point: Newport Beach's Dana Reed, a top strategist for pro-airport forces and Argyros' right-hand man.
Kogerman, the pit bull of the anti-airport campaign, said Reed “is no friend of ours” but dismissed the connection as meaningless. He claimed Reed was hired by the group because he is “one of the relatively few attorneys who is expert in Orange County's election law” and that publishing for public consumption the Reed-TRP link “is a particularly insidious manner of creating guilt by association.” Publicizing the connection, however, is not insidious; the cozy connection itself is. Who could honestly say it's not strange that anti-airport leaders—who say they despise those in the pro-airport movement—selected as their consultant on separate development issues a man who has helped lead each of Argyros' winning pro-airport campaigns and is a lobbyist for the city of Newport Beach's pro-airport efforts? Faced with that question in a follow-up interview, Kogerman conceded, “clearly and unequivocally that TRP would not have anything to do with Dana Reed.”
Another fascinating connection between the TRP leadership and pro-airport developers is Krogius, the chairman of the anti-airport group's advisory council. Krogius, who lives in exclusive Monarch Beach, spent the latter part of his career as a major real-estate developer. He strenuously tried to distance Reed from connections to his anti-airport associates. Krogius acknowledged that Mackaig had hired the pro-airport activist for CAREDana Point but said that Mackaig “cannot be considered” part of the anti-airport leadership and “has served in no capacity” at TRP. However, a Dec. 8, 1998, internal TRP chart obtained by the Weekly lists Mackaig as a member of TRP's reorganized advisory board. Mackraig is also treasurer of the campaign committee for fellow TRP associate and Dana Point City councilman Wayne Rayfield, a pal of Krogius'. Even though TRP has sided with the Headlands developers, Rayfield is one of two council members representing citizens in secret negotiations with those same developers.
Krogius is decidely pro-developer at the Headlands. In letters to the editors of local newspapers, he has lambasted citizens groups that have questioned what he characterizes as the altruistic motives of developers Headlands Reserve LLC and Master Plan Development Corp. Krogius' daughter Karin, of Corona del Mar, is a real-estate developer for Pacific Bay Homes—one of the most active developers in the county. As an attorney in the early 1990s, Karin Krogius represented developer William Lyons, a former partner of Argyros at Air Cal, a contributor to staunch pro-airport Supervisor Jim Silva of Huntington Beach and a major financial backer of the proposed airport. However, she is, according to Kogerman, a backer of the anti-airport Safe and Healthy Communities initiative. Krogius' other daughter, Mimi Krogius Walters, is a Laguna Niguel City Council member and beneficiary of generous contributions from the BIA and Newport Beach real-estate developers. Like every other South County politician, she talks tough against the developers at El Toro. Walters' campaign staff has included treasurer Corliss Delameter, a longtime employee of—you guessed it—pro-airport strategist Dana Reed.
Concerns about the anti-airport movement might not have arisen if the Headlands affair and the Reed connection were only bizarre anomalies. They are not. A Weekly investigation directly linked the anti-airport leadership to pro-airport developer forces in another highly controversial project just a few miles up Pacific Coast Highway from Dana Point. Campaign records show that the man who helped lead a developer's campaign for a dense, publicly subsidized private development at Laguna Beach's Treasure Island was none other than Tom Shepard, the man the anti-airport, developer-friendly businessmen chose to run the Citizens for Safe and Healthy Communities (CSHC) campaign initiative.
Shepard founded San Diego-based Campaign Strategies Inc. in 1992 and is known as the man Southern California's wealthy developers hire in hopes of demolishing grassroots reasonable-growth initiatives. He has helped a developer destroy a slow-growth ballot measure in Santee, led the corporate community's demands that taxpayers pay for convention-center expansion in San Diego, and guided a campaign that resulted in taxpayer subsidization of efforts to build the San Diego Padres a new ballpark. In January, Shepard told the Weekly's Anthony Pignataro, “The reason I deal with developers so much is because developers frequently have the money to pay for campaigns.”
TRP officials have said they hired Shepard precisely because of his close relationships with developers. So it's not surprising that after collecting money from TRP ($20,997 from the anti-airport group during the last six months of 1998), Shepard was also the lead campaign strategist for the developers at Treasure Island. Indeed, the pro-development Treasure Island committee paid Shepard $21,000 in the first few months of 1999. (TRP's records for the first six months of this year are not yet available for public inspection.) Reliable sources say Shepard took behind-the-scenes credit for helping the Newport Beach developers defeat in April a grassroots call for increased open space and usable parkland at the Treasure Island project.
Shepard told the Weeklythat he has no current ties whatsoever with Kogerman and TRP. A January anti-airport coalition memo obtained by the Weeklycontradicts that claim. The memo states that for “image” purposes, CSHC would be headed by a “large and inclusive group from across the county.” In reality, however, they “will not have a direct decision-making role in the campaign.” Decisions, the memo states, will be made by Shepard, Kogerman, Krogius and others at TRP and Clean Air/No Jets.
TRP's ties to the Treasure Island project and other pro-developer interests don't end there. Norm Grossman works for Kogerman at TRP; thanks to an appointment by pro-development City Council members in Laguna Beach, Grossman is also a planning commissioner who sided with and campaigned for Treasure Island's developers, Richard Hall and Manhattan investment-house giant Merrill Lynch. Grossman's name can be found on both the developers' slick mailers (prepared by Shepard) and on the nomination petitions that helped put at least two ultra-pro-development candidates on the Laguna Beach City Council: Steve Dicterow and Paul Freeman. Dicterow's political career was single-handedly launched by funds from the Treasure Island developers and their associates. Freeman is a ranking lobbyist for C.J. Segerstrom N Sons, the Costa Mesa-based real-estate development company. Segerstrom has contributed at least $50,000 to pro-airport causes.
Nonetheless, Freeman and Dicterow have at least verbally expressed opposition to the developers at El Toro. The Laguna Beach Taxpayers Association (LBTA), an ultra-pro-development group, shares the pro-airport BIA's enthusiasm for Dicterow and Freeman. The group has, for example, contributed to Silva, the key vote on the Board of Supervisors for the proposed airport. Additionally, LBTA's campaign-disclosure reports were at least once mailed in envelopes from the Newport Beach offices of pro-airport strategist Dave Ellis. And guess who LBTA has repeatedly used as a consultant? Dana Reed.
Revelations in recent weeks that the Weekly was probing the ties between anti- and pro-airport leaders prompted bitter reaction from TRP officials. Threats of legal action were continual. In an effort to correct any possible factual errors, the Weekly took the rare step of providing TRP officials with an advance copy of the article. The anger was palpable and immediate. Without any evidence, they wrongly accused Project 99's Agran of instigating this article. Shepard sent a fax telling the Weekly the paper was “on notice” for unspecified “false and defamatory” statements. He was unwilling or unable to provide details in a follow-up telephone interview. Krogius wrote that he was “saddened by your incomprehensible assault on the many decent and generous citizens who have been responsible for turning a done deal on the airport reuse into something that may never happen. . . . You should be aware that all the fanciful innuendo in your article could possibly accomplish is to help the pro-airport forces.” Kogerman, an expert in colorful soundbites, called the story “a libelous composite of half-truths, unfounded and illogical conclusions, guilt by association, and contemptuous innuendo that is absent any honest journalistic value.” He went on to wildly accuse the Weekly of being pro-development and pro-airport. He noted in conclusion that he is “thrilled that the effectiveness of my responsible land-use planning activities has terrified the radical left-wing activists to the extent necessitating this article. I must be doing something right!”
On the surface, many things have been going right for the anti-airport movement. A few weeks ago, Newport Beach Congressman Christopher Cox chided Orange County's Board of Supervisors for callously trying to force the proposed airport on unwilling residential communities; he wants the federal government to sell the old military base to the highest bidder. Volunteers—including members of TRP and Clean Air/No Jets—have reportedly collected more than 100,000 signatures to place the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative on the March 2000 ballot. Pro-airport county CEO Jan Mittermeier and the supervisors continue to blunder in the planning process. Spurred by their sense that developers control the county's airport planning process, thousands of South County residents have opened their checkbooks and generously poured more than a million dollars into TRP's war against the airport.
Nevertheless, the extensive connections between anti-airport officials and pro-airport developers—particularly at the Headlands and Treasure Island—raise reasonable concerns about future loyalties in the fight over El Toro. TRP's track record doesn't help: the group has lost two countywide anti-airport initiative battles with Argyros in recent years. Now they're gearing up for a third. Oddly, in this weird, weird war, the businessmen running the anti-airport campaigns have proved more successful in helping Newport Beach real-estate developers crush citizen opposition to overdevelopment throughout Orange County.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.