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Second Sight: Part Five
updated: Jan 22, 2011, 9:30 AM
By Frank Frost
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Part 5 |
November 1972, after the election
The first Monday after the election was the weekly meeting day for the Board of Supervisors. I took a seat in the audience of the impressive chamber, accepting along the way the congratulations of both county staff and the five sitting supervisors. George Clyde, who was retiring from the First District, became my mentor, instructing me in all the nuances behind the machinery of county government. I knew perfectly well that the other four supervisors had been strong supporters of George Bliss, but we were all politicians and we shook hands and grinned vacuously and insincerely at each other. For the next two years, my colleagues would be Charles "Monte" Catterlin in the
Second District, my friend and only ally, Jim Slater in the third, Mutt Beattie, from Lompoc in the Fourth District, and Curt Tunnell in the Fifth, up around Santa Maria. Dan Grant was retiring from the Third District but would still be around until the first Monday in January 1973.
I continued to attend unofficially for the next two months and learned a great deal about procedure and the predictable way each supervisor would orate and vote. Usually around late afternoon Dan Grant, a cunning old curmudgeon from Hope Ranch, would call for our secretary.
"Jeannie! Get me some coffee. I'm falling asleep up here." Jeannie would dutifully appear through the side door and carefully carry Dan's coffee cup, trying not to let the ice cubes clink in their bath of bourbon.
That first Monday, the board invited me to Mutt Beattie's office after the meeting. Mutt had what was basically an apartment in the county administration building; being from the north county, he rated sleeping quarters in case he stayed over after late meetings. The liquor flowed freely. Mutt explained the Brown Act to me. If more than two supervisors were present at any gathering, no public business could be discussed.
"All we can talk about is booze and pussy," said Mutt to enlighten me. Mutt's hometown of Lompoc had been featured as the locale of the old W.C.Fields movie, "The Bank Dick," and Mutt could have been a leftover character actor from that film. Monte Catterlin's flunky, Raul Navarro, kept filling my glass with good bourbon, and I knew they were trying to see if they could get me drunk and maybe do something embarrassing like get busted driving home, but they were dealing with an old saloon piano player with over twenty years on the meter and after a cheerful hour, I walked steadily down four flights of stairs and drove home.
The election result sounds like a happy ending, but there was a totally unexpected final act. At one of the many receptions I attended during the next two months, a cheerful, beaming older man came up and grabbed my hand.
"Frank, Frank! What a great campaign! I'm Phil Regan and we gotta get together!"
I'd probably seen Phil Regan in one of his many B movies, where he played a singing Irish cop, or a singing Irish something. He had been a notable Hollywood Democrat celebrity, but as a sure-footed hoofer, had heard a different drummer coming along in the early sixties and had become a prominent spokesman for "Democrats for Reagan" during the 1966 gubernatorial campaign, when the Gipper trounced his former old pal, Pat Brown. When his acting career had declined into a night club act in the early fifties he became more and more a constant companion of politicians and the business types who needed favors from them. Becoming prosperous in New Jersey and Chicago, he sought a more comfortable, warmer climate, and for years had alternated between estates in Palm Springs and Montecito. People in county government assured me that I was lucky to have caught Phil Regan's eye. "You'll go far with Phil," they assured me. They didn't know that, if one were available, I would have had a bumper sticker that said, "I don't brake for Democrats who endorse Republicans," but I was new and kept my mouth shut.
The pitch was not long in coming. Phil phoned and invited me to visit his Montecito place one afternoon in December. While his wife took Mandy on a tour of the house, including whole rooms covered with photos of Phil with every politician, including presidents, from the last thirty years, Phil took me aside and proposed a bribe in return for my vote in favor of a zoning change. This sounds abrupt, and of course he didn't put it that way. It was more: "Frank, I followed your campaign and I know you found a great issue in that no-growth stuff. But I'm sure you're a reasonable guy … "
The deal was that Phil's good friend, Said Halimi, "The richest Jew in Iran," Phil told me, had done some great developments up there in Tahoe, and now had an option to develop More Mesa, the last large parcel of vacant coastal land between Hope Ranch and the Goleta slough. It was huge, almost two square miles of wild meadow and brush on bluffs a hundred feet above a pristine beach. It was zoned open space and political gymnastics would be necessary to change the zoning to residential and then cover the mesa with hundreds of homes--worth hundreds of millions to any developer.
"We've got three votes already," Phil told me. "A majority vote. But we'd like four, and we know your friend Jim Slater's against it. It's in his district.'
Time was running against Said Halimi and Phil Regan, who assured me he was only trying to arrange matters as a favor for a friend. Everyone knew that the Coastal Act had passed and would be written into law by the legislature within a month. The rezoning of More Mesa was set for the second meeting of the Board of Supervisors in January, just a week after I would be sworn in. If it could be passed then, the developers could claim a vested interest, and would have a strong legal claim no matter what the Coastal Commission would do. If the rezoning was put off and the property came under the Coastal Act, Halimi had said he would give up his option rather than battle the environmentalists over the whole permitting process. But a four-one vote from the supervisors would be a major advantage in any legal contests to come.
My friend, Ken Palmer, had just narrowly lost an election for State assembly. Phil made it his business to know details like this. "Your friend Palmer could probably use a little help these days," Phil told me. "I know you can't get involved in stuff like this, but if I could talk to Ken, maybe both of you could come out ahead."
It was so smooth that it wasn't until Mandy and I were driving away that I exclaimed, "The son of a bitch is going to try to bribe me!" Mandy usually tries to see the best side of everyone, but she was so steamed after being led all over the house by Mrs. Regan to admire photos of Phil with his arm around Nixon or J. Edgar Hoover and other scoundrels that she agreed.
We talked to Ken that evening. I'd given Regan Ken's phone number and we discussed what kind of approach might be made and how he should respond. A few nights later, Ken phoned in great excitement. "It's a straight out bribe," he said, bubbling over in glee. Five thousand as a starter and more when the project passes." Ken was to go out to Regan's house in a few days and accept a down payment of a thousand dollars in cash. Ken felt vaguely insulted. "Phil thinks you're too straight arrow to get involved directly," he told us. "But he laid it all right out on the table for me, as if I was some sleazy guy who did this stuff all the time."
At that moment we were in a quandary. We wanted to arrange a sting and nail Phil Regan-and torpedo the More Mesa project along the way, but I didn't know anyone in the sheriff department and I didn't trust the county district attorney, David Minier, because he had a reputation as a crafty opportunist. Regan had been ingratiating himself with everyone in local government and for all I knew, the DA might be involved with Regan too. So Ken and I made an appointment to see my old friend, Judge Joe Lodge, in his chambers the next day. Joe was the most squeaky-clean and honest person in the county, if not all of southern California, and we felt sure that he would know what to do.
(To be continued)
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