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Lessons learned from Rezone can't be forgotten

By Jim Boren
The Fresno Bee

(Published Sunday, December 15, 2002, 3:45 AM)


Finally, the Operation Rezone political corruption case has come to a close. When former Fresno City Councilman Robert C. Smith walked out of the Fresno County Jail last week, it ended eight years of examining Fresno's political underbelly.

The community learned a lot about itself, and it wasn't flattering. All the rumors over all those years about local government being for sale were true. Sixteen convictions don't lie.

But in many ways, Fresno and Clovis remain in denial of their recent past. Cozy relationships continue between developers and elected officials, particularly in Fresno, where influential special interests almost run a shadow government.

Maybe you have to drain the political swamp every few years just to see what's swimming at the bottom.

Memories are short. You hear a lot of people saying the Operation Rezone crimes weren't that bad. They're rewriting history. It was that bad. The corruptors stole part of our government in an attempt to enrich themselves, and they'll do it again if we don't pay attention.

U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger, who presided over most of the Operation Rezone cases, once said during a sentencing hearing that political corruption "destroys the function of a democratic form of government" by preventing it from operating in the best interest of the public.

Already paid for

That meant that public hearings on zoning issues often were for show, with results predetermined because a bag of money had been delivered to the right elected officials. The public could protest but $1,000 trumped 1,000 protesting neighbors every time.

But now that Operation Rezone is over, you have to wonder if this region is ignoring the lessons of the high-profile prosecutions.

"I have heard people in the industry say that politicians and developers are either much cleaner or much smarter now," said Bill Tatham Jr., the whistleblower who started the Operation Rezone investigation by going to the FBI in 1994. "At least they're not quite as brazen as they used to be. But others say that once the feds leave town, things will go back to the same way they were."

When the final Operation Rezone case was completed, the U.S. Attorney's Office said it would still be on the lookout for political corruption. While future prosecutions may not have the Operation Rezone moniker, federal officials said they would be just as diligent.

Tatham said there may be more opportunities because "there is so much money on the table." The building industry is so lucrative in this region that the "temptation to corrupt the system is almost overwhelming," he said.

But would they take the chance given the prison sentences handed to those who were caught in the Operation Rezone scandal?

Prominent developers and lobbyists were among those brought down in Rezone. But the most depressing part of the case was that they got to our elected officials. Three council members in Fresno and three council members in Clovis had violated their public trust, ultimately being convicted in federal court.

Voters elected them to office, and they immediately had their hands out.

Bargain basement prices

Then this episode started sounding like a bad movie. While a Clovis council member got $10,000 in cash for playing ball with the bad guys, we learned that one Fresno councilman offered to exchange his vote for a set of used tires, while another was willing to sell out the public for a suit of clothes.

Tatham also paid a terrible price both personally and in his real estate investment business for helping to expose the local corruption. He was regularly threatened as the case proceeded, and is considered a pariah by many in the community even today.

The FBI honored Tatham for his work in helping obtain the 16 Operation Rezone convictions, but the ceremony was held in Sacramento. That speaks volumes about Fresno's commitment to a clean government. Public officials in Fresno shamefully were silent. They didn't want to offend prominent developers.

So have things really changed in this community that has for so long formulated public policy in the backrooms at the behest of the special interests? Maybe.

Fresno County's new district attorney, Elizabeth Egan, has promised to create a political corruption task force to attack white-collar crime. That should help. Aggressive local prosecution teamed with the feds' commitment to ridding this area of public corruption should send a strong message to those who would violate the public trust.

But it's not just the massive amount of money at stake in planning decisions that requires us to be vigilant about our government. As Operation Rezone showed, there are elected officials willing to trade their votes for used tires or a new suit. And that should terrify anyone who believes in democracy.

Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee's editorial page editor. His column appears Sunday. E-mail him at jboren@fresnobee.com or write him at 1626 E St., Fresno 93786.



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