County Supervisor Accused of Giving Anti-Airport Forces Confidential Information

OCTOBER 21, 2001

A Newport Beach attorney has asked the Orange County Grand Jury to investigate whether a county supervisor violated his oath of office by working and sharing confidential information with forces opposed to a commercial airport at El Toro.

But Supervisor Tom Wilson said the accusation against him calls into question the very meaning of elective representation and denied any wrongdoing.

Richard Taylor, chairman of the El Toro Airport Working Group, accused Wilson of acting on behalf of attorneys who have either filed or threatened to file lawsuits against the county over development of the former Marine base. In a civil complaint sent last week to the grand jury, Taylor asked that Wilson be barred from legal discussions involving the airport and county staff so that he cannot share confidential information and strategy with the anti-airport El Toro Reuse Planning Authority.

"You can't go into litigation with a double agent on your side," said Taylor, who chairs the El Toro Airport Working Group of Orange County. "If I did what Wilson did, I'd be disbarred. If my real estate agent did it, I could sue him for breach of fiduciary duty."

Wilson, however, contends he is representing his south Orange County constituents, who are vehemently opposed to an airport.

Calling Taylor's complaint despicable, Wilson said he was exercising his right to free speech in questioning an El Toro airport. He said he hasn't discussed anything confidential with ETRPA. Wilson has been a nonvoting member of ETRPA since 1997, and the group has filed several lawsuits against the county's plans for an airport.

"I'll be happy to respond to the grand jury or anyone else," Wilson said. "Is he saying that I can't represent my constituents? I happen to have an opinion that the [airport] is wrong and I'm advocating to change the law."

County attorneys acknowledged that they asked for -- but never received -- a pledge from Wilson that he wouldn't discuss legal matters with ETRPA or divulge confidential information. Wilson said the document "fell through the cracks."

The issue of conflicting loyalties over El Toro has simmered for years. Developing an airport at the former Marine base was narrowly approved by voters in 1994, but supervisors have been split 3 to 2, with the majority in favor.

The Hall of Administration at times has resembled a wartime bunker, with open hostility between enemy camps. Wilson and Supervisor Todd Spitzer repeatedly have used the state's public records law to get information they said was withheld by county managers. Pro-airport Supervisor Jim Silva was so incensed over leaks of confidential information that he proposed making such acts a crime. He dropped the idea after free-speech advocates complained.

At last week's board meeting, pro-airport Supervisor Chuck Smith raised the loyalty issue again as the majority hired a private attorney to review airport promotional materials. ETRPA has sued the county, claiming the materials are an improper use of public funds. "Two members of the board are on ETRPA and ETRPA is suing the county," Smith said. "It's a rather strange situation."

Awkward or not, it is possible for a board member to take direction from a group while still protecting privileged information from an opposing group, said Terry Francke, general counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento. "There may be unusual temptations to leak strategy learned in confidential settings, but they can be resisted," Francke said.

Taylor said he researched Wilson's correspondence and uncovered memos between Wilson's office and ETRPA attorney Richard Jacobs recommending airport actions that Wilson should take as supervisor even as ETRPA was suing the county. He said he hasn't yet looked through Spitzer's files.

In a May 1998 memo Jacobs sent Wilson staffer Holly Veale a proposed board resolution that would have eliminated one of the county's airport alternatives, Taylor said. Wilson lobbied for the resolution, but it died after then-Supervisor Bill Steiner withdrew his support.

At the time, Steiner said ETRPA's attorneys had added language at the last minute to "deliberately sabotage" the airport plan in the event of a court challenge.

Taylor said Jacobs sent Veale another memo in April 1998 detailing why Wilson should join Spitzer in challenging the county's hiring of Michael Gatzke, an attorney experienced on airport issues. ETRPA sued when the county moved ahead. The suit was settled--with Wilson and Spitzer voting yes--after the county agreed that Gatzke wouldn't handle future lawsuits without a four-fifths vote of supervisors.

Source: Los Angeles Times