It was common knowledge during his lifetime that Tom Fuentes, longtime, legendary boss of the Orange County Republican Party, held numerous jobs. He worked as a county Supervisor's assistant, human-resources director for a government contracting firm and spokesman for the Catholic Church, and he served as a board member for several politically conservative operations, including Eagle Publishing and the Claremont Institute. He also won election as a trustee to the South Orange County Community College District.
But there's newly unearthed evidence that Fuentes, who died from liver cancer in May at the age of 63, also parlayed his position as chairman of the local GOP for 19 years into more secretive endeavors.
According to once-classified FBI records released this month at the request of OC Weekly, Fuentes repeatedly took undisclosed money as a consultant and lobbyist—even for foreign interests—and briefly served as a confidential government informant on a Japanese Buddhist official. The records also show he tried to negotiate a job with a proposed Japanese-funded, worldwide philanthropic organization to fight AIDS (at a time when the disease was considered only a homosexual problem) and rainforest deforestation. It's unlikely he was fit for such a mission as a hardcore conservative who saw non-closeted gays and environmentalists—hell, any coalition within the Democratic Party—as sworn enemies of a righteous America.
But even in death, the FBI is protecting at least one of Fuentes' lobbying gigs by claiming public knowledge of the identity of the person who paid him untold sums for at least two years after the 2000 election would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
Being a man with friends and connections, Fuentes got himself named by then-President George W. Bush to the federal government's Legal Services Corporation (LSC), whose mission is to aid poverty-level citizens in the court system. The Bush White House ordered the FBI to conduct an “expedited” background check. I don't know if expedited meant “whitewashed,” but that's what happened. Not one Fuentes critic was contacted. Agents dutifully interviewed only his fawning allies, who vouched he was a patriot without vice or blemish.
Oddly missing from the background check on Fuentes is any mention of his role as the right-hand man to a bribe-loving county supervisor in the 1970s, his association with a government-consulting firm tied to payoffs made to water-district officials, or, in general, his hypocrisy for continually ranting about government waste while for decades using his party chairmanship to secure wealthy GOP contributors lucrative government contracts—acts hilariously described by Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit—who boasted in print he was Fuentes' yard-sale buddy—as “the good one does and the love one can spread through political connections.”
How did agents tackle the controversy under Fuentes when Republicans illegally placed private poll guards at 20 voting stations in Latino-heavy areas of Santa Ana in 1988 to narrowly secure a Republican state Assembly victory for Curt Pringle? They let him call it a “frivolous” issue and didn't dig deeper despite the fact the culprits paid almost $500,000 to end the case before a civil trial.
The FBI's review gets more dubious when you consider that agents logged statements from nine Fuentes allies who guaranteed the man who headed what may have been the most vociferously homophobic, anti-Latino and female-dismissive local political-party committee in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s was “without any feelings of bias or prejudice against any persons or groups.”
Under Saint Fuentes, the local Republican Party wasn't a hotbed of concern for the poor. What type of issues got party members off their country-club bar stools and declaring national doom? Proposed tax increases on luxury-yacht purchases.
So, it was ironic for Bush to name the natty, anti-government man to a top slot at an entity created by Lyndon Johnson to help the poor in his War on Poverty. An LSC obituary for Fuentes mentioned that “Tom was a great American who wore his patriotism on his sleeve” and “he liked to tell us that when he traveled to our board meetings [in Washington, D.C.], he departed from the John Wayne Airport and flew on American Airlines.”
What a hoot, that Tom. He may have worn patriotism on his sleeve, but in private, raw capitalism trumped all the flag waving. According to the FBI records largely compiled during a background check for his White House appointment, Fuentes liked to put his hand out for money from foreign individuals. He wasn't himself a businessman, but he got paid to give “business advice” and “use his community contacts” for Japanese, Taiwanese or Chinese interests.
“Fuentes flew out to Tokyo to meet with [REDACTED] paid all expenses on this trip including airfare, hotel and food,” reads one dateless FBI summary. “Fuentes also received a $5,000 or $10,000 stipend to pay for Fuentes' time.”
Another entry details Fuentes' foreign travel in 1995: “Fuentes made a second trip to Tokyo at [REDACTED] request. [REDACTED] invited Fuentes and [REDACTED] to Japan in order to discuss establishing a board of directors for an international philanthropic organization that focused on global health and environmental issues, like the rain forest deforestation and AIDS.”
After mentioning an unnamed “successful” Japanese businessman, the FBI entry continued: “Fuentes had contacts with retired congressmen and cabinet members in the United States. [REDACTED] had similar contact in Europe. So [REDACTED] brought Fuentes and [REDACTED] to Tokyo for the purpose of discussing with them the possibility of having some public personalities serve on the board of the new foundation. . . . The board members were planned to be paid $10,000 to $25,000 a year. The foundation may have been called EarthAid Foundation.”
The FBI files indicate that Fuentes worked in 1990 for the agency as a likely unpaid mole against a Buddhist religious official—his identity was redacted—in Fuji City, Japan. After a visit to the man's estate, Fuentes met with an agent and described what he saw.
“The compound was comprised of 80 acres of land,” he reported, according to agency notes that included several, wholly redacted pages. “[REDACTED] compound had many signs of wealth. Some of the artwork in [REDACTED] compound was done in gold. . . . The compound was divided into different areas. Each area was established for a certain purpose. For example, there was a water course running through part of the compound. The water was supposed to have some kind of curative powers. . . . In one area of the compound, there was a hall of Buddha.”
Though seemingly meaningless, the brief, international, cloak-and-dagger episode must have delighted Fuentes. He was, after all, more than a charming party emcee, hardball influence peddler, sly bagman on the prowl for his cut on government deals and relentless dogma barker. He actually once worked as a spy.
This column appeared in print as “The Man With the Golden Tongue: Once-classified FBI files reveal ex-Orange County GOP boss Tom Fuentes snitched for the feds and sought foreign lobbying deals.”
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; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.