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O.C. Fair board's actions regarding sale of fairgrounds may be illegal, county counsel says

November 18, 2009 |  6:31 pm

The top attorney for the county of Orange is urging an investigation of the local fair board, saying its hiring of a lobbyist and law firm to influence the sale of the Orange County fairgrounds by the state may have been illegal.

In a Oct. 30 letter, County Counsel Nicholas S. Chrisos asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate the Orange County Fair Board, saying members’ use of public funds to lobby state officials over the terms of the fairgrounds sale appeared to violate a state law prohibiting public officials from having a financial or personal interest in a contract or sale.

The state put the 150-acre Costa Mesa property up for auction last month in an attempt to raise funds to help ease California's budget crisis.

At its July 29 meeting, the fair board hired former state Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman and the law firm Nossaman, Guthner, Knox and Eliot to lobby the governor’s office, Chrisos wrote.

But six members of the governor-appointed board had met privately with the law firm eight days earlier to incorporate the nonprofit Orange County Fair and Event Center Foundation to place a bid for the fairgrounds, Chrisos wrote.

“It appears that the Fair Board utilized public funds to engage a firm to influence the design of the [auction] so it would best suit the anticipated foundation bid,” he wrote.

The board may have also violated the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act by failing to notify the public that it was considering hiring a law firm and a lobbyist, Chrisos wrote.

Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Gary W. Schons declined to investigate, writing in a Nov. 13 response that it would be inappropriate because his office provides legal counsel for the fair board.

“You may bring this matter to the attention of the district attorney,” he wrote.

The Orange County district attorney’s office called the attorney general’s office to offer assistance but has not been asked to investigate by the county counsel, a spokeswoman said.

The chairwoman of the fair board and foundation could not be reached for comment late today.

— Tony Barboza in Orange County