More on Bordonaro’s special favors
April 11, 2010
(Editor’s Note: This is the third and last in a series about San Luis Obispo County Assessor and Republican politico Tom Bordonaro.)
By KAREN VELIE
While San Luis Obispo County Assessor Tom Bordonaro says he is not guilty of any misuse of his office or showing favoritism to political friends, critics are pointing to specific instances where he used his office to cut property taxes for friends and promote his political agenda.
Critics also accuse Bordonaro of using his non-partisan San Luis Obispo County assessor position to do favors for businesses and political powerhouses. Bordonaro has been involved in promoting many local political candidates while claiming to have the ability, due to his many connections, to push issues through county government.
“He is not concerned with doing the work of the people,” said a high-ranking assessor staffer who asked to remain unnamed for fear of being fired by Bordonaro. “He is using his office to stay politically involved.”
As an example of his influence, critics say, local businessmen with commercial interests regularly donate to Bordonaro’s political action committee (PAC).
Last year, H. D. Perrett, the Nipomo landowner who has battled to have his 4,700-acre Suey Ranch removed from San Luis Obispo County and annexed to Santa Barbara County, donated $2,000 to Bordonaro’s PAC.
The San Luis Obispo supervisors recently rejected an attempt to move the ranch into Santa Barbara County despite Bordonaro’s claim that he could influence the supervisors to agree on issues he is supporting.
These critics contend that Bordonaro has repeatedly asked his staff to reassess the property of his political allies and business contacts at rates below those of their neighbors at a cost of lost revenue to public schools at a time dozens of local teachers are receiving pink slips.
In 2006, a member of the Atascadero City Council, who openly announced he planned to vote to approve rezoning land for a Wal-Mart store in that town, purchased a home on more than an acre in the city. During the same year, Bordonaro founded the Central Coast Taxpayers Association, a group primarily focused on promoting the Wal-Mart store in Atascadero.
Even though Councilman Jerry Clay paid only $260,000 for his newly acquired Atascadero property, assessor staff found evidence the property was sold below market value and increased the assessed value to approximately $375,000.
Clay objected and Bordonaro intervened, making sure the assessment was lowered, sources said. Currently, the property is assessed at approximately $330,000, assessor records indicate.
About ten years ago, Kelly Gearhart, a former North County developer with a reputation for asking government officials for favors, approached Bordonaro’s predecessor and asked that the county assessor reduce his property taxes without making him go through the proper procedures.
“Kelly Gearhart asked me to lower the assessments on some of his properties,” former San Luis Obispo County Assessor Dick Frank told CalCoastNews.
“I told him he could file an assessment appeal. He got upset and said he didn’t want to go through the appeals process.”
Frank said Gearhart argued that going through the standard written request procedure was not the way he did things.
Nevertheless, Frank denied Gearhart’s request.
While Gearhart and Frank never spoke again, the North County developer would brag of his direct line to Bordonaro, a ranking Atascadero official told CalCoastNews.
About five years ago, Bordonaro bragged that he and Gearhart went to Sacramento for a fundraiser with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The pair was seated at the head table with the governor and received photographs of themselves with him.
Seats at the governor’s table required a donation of between $50,000 and $100,000. Some county employees are questioning who paid for the excursion.
At about the same time, critics say Bordonaro directed his staff to do favors for Gearhart, including pushing the developer to the top of the list when processing subdivisions.
Gearhart, along with Jay Miller of Hurst Financial Inc., has been the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI for a range of alleged illegal acts, including racketeering, money laundering and wire fraud.
Some county employees also question why Bordonaro, who is currently the chair of the Republican party in San Luis Obispo County, is reportedly promoting a property tax exemption for his longtime acquaintance and current 4th District County Supervisor candidate Michael Zimmerman, a Republican.
County assessors, such as Bordonaro with a staff of more than 80 people, generally do not get involved in singular homeowner assessor appeals.
As the result of a recent inheritance, Zimmerman is paying more than $13,000 a year in property taxes on 292 acres of land his family owns in Arroyo Grande. If his tax-exempt status is approved, his property tax bill would be eliminated.
Zimmerman met with Bordonaro in his office to discuss what requirements he needs to meet in order to obtain tax-free status for the property, Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said he plans to build a religious retreat on the land through a charity dubbed God’s Country of Arroyo Grande, which was founded in the 1980s. After he gets his property tax exemption, Zimmerman said he plans to start seeking donations to construct a religious retreat.
“I met with Tom and a staff member,” Zimmerman said. “I have been involved with the Republican Party so I have known Tom for some time.”
Generally, only the portion of land where the retreat is located would be tax exempt and the landowner would still be required to pay taxes on the remaining acreage. For example, a church with a 100-acre parcel, would only have a tax except status on the acreage used for religious services.
In addition to concerns that Bordonaro is providing tax breaks to his friends, some critics question the accuracy of Bordonaro’s travel expenditures.
While a student at California Polytechnic State University, Bordonaro, who majored in agricultural business, was in an auto accident on U.S Highway 101 between San Luis Obispo and Santa Margarita in which he suffered a cervical spinal injury in 1978.
The accident left Bordonaro paralyzed and he uses a motorized wheelchair to get around.
Because of his disability, the county pays for the cost of a room and meals for a companion to accompany Bordonaro on work-related travel outside of San Luis Obispo County.
At a time when many of the county’s elected officials have refrained from billing the county for travel because of budget woes, a check of Bordonaro’s travel records show inconsistencies with the county’s very specific travel requirements.
On Feb. 18, 2009, Bordonaro attended a California Assessor Association Legislative Committee meeting in Sacramento that lasted from 9:30 a.m. until 12 noon. Attendees had the option of then attending a meet-and-greet session with state lawmakers from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Policies allow employees to bill the county for meals and hotel rooms that occur during permitted travel times. The hotel was five hours from Bordonaro’s home in Paso Robles and as such, he was not permitted to charge the county for further hotel rooms or meals after that time.
Under county travel rules, Bordonaro should have left immediately at 3 p.m. in order to make it home by 8 p.m., which is permissible for reimbursement.
Bordonaro billed the county for two rooms on both Feb. 17, 2009 and Feb. 18, 2009.
And more than 24 hours after the last meeting ended, on Feb. 19 at 4 p.m., Bordonaro took a companion to dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack in Sacramento. On the $54 bill which was reimbursed by the county, Bordonaro noted that he had a flat tire.
However, he failed to mention that he had not left Sacramento because he had checked into a Hyatt Regency in the state capital where he spent the next four days attending the 2009 state Republican Convention.
He charged the remaining nights of lodging and the rest of his meals to “Friends of Tom Bordonaro,” his political action committee.
Since Bordonaro first ran for office in 2002, he has kept his PAC active and uses some of the proceeds to donate to such entities as the Lincoln Club of San Luis Obispo County, the Republican Party of San Luis Obispo County and political contenders, such as former county supervisor candidate Debbie Arnold.
His contributors include Monsanto, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Patrick Hedges, Wal-Mart promoter Maury Frauman, county supervisor Khatcho Achadjian, county District Attorney Gerald T. Shea, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians at $5,000 a donation, SLO sheriff’s spokesman Rob Bryn and state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), according to Bordonaro’s campaign disclosure statements.
Achadjian is currently seeking the GOP nomination to succeed state Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) in Sacramento and Hedges is stepping down as sheriff.
In 2009 he received $24,741 in contributions. He reported $47,893 in total expenditures and more than $12,000 in unpaid bills.
In addition, the Bordonaro household receives a portion of every donation made to Achadjian’s run for the Assembly. According to his last recording with Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Achadjian’s PAC has paid more than $9,000 to Bordonaro’s wife, Martha Bordonaro, a mother of four young children and a practicing chiropractor, for running his fundraisers.
Assessor positions are non-partisan. Assessors like Joseph Holland in Santa Barbara County who ran for office in 2002 with promises to conduct the office with integrity and to insure that it is not used for political purposes, which did occur recently in San Bernardino County.
An investigation started by the San Bernardino supervisors ultimately resulted in the arrests of the assessor and four of his staffers for blatant misuse of the office and accepting bribes.
Another example of a favor for a Bordonaro friend was reported by CalCoastNews in a previous article. The girlfriend of Bordonaro’s banker recently sold a bed-and-breakfast in Paso Robles for an amount similar to a home she purchased in Templeton.
The homeowner requested a Proposition 60 transfer, a measure approved by voters in 1986 which allows a property owner to transfer a property tax amount from a current residence to a new residence of equal or lower value. If a property also has a commercial concern, the value of the business is subtracted from the sales amount as part of the computation.
Staff members in Bordonaro’s office originally rejected the Proposition 60 transfer for the girlfriend because it did not qualify, according to a strict formula normally applied for this special tax exemption.
Critics claim Bordonaro responded by asking subordinates to remove approximately $200,000 from the new home’s assessed value for four acres of hobby grapes, a practice not normally allowed because hobby grapes have little commercial value. This deal equates to a total saving of more than $7,000 per year for his banker’s friend.
Nevertheless, shortly after Bordonaro became assessor, he signed a memo that he would not become personally involved in wine grape assessments because of a perceived conflict of interest and provided the document to County Counsel.
A group of commercial wine grape land owners, which included Bordonaro’s father, had requested in writing that the Bordonaro’s office lower commercial grape vine assessments throughout the county.
In a request for a retraction to CalCoastNews for some statements made in a previous article, a county counsel attorney reportedly helped the assessor write his justification for approving the Proposition 60 transfer.
County Counsel attorneys provide legal services to county departments in a manner that is supposed to “promote excellence in the delivery of government services to the public,” according to their mission statement.
“Your statement is false,” said Bordonaro in his retraction request. “The property owner sold her home, not a bed-and-breakfast. The home had one bedroom in a partially converted barn.”
However, sale sheets advertising the property as a bed and breakfast are still available on line and also reportedly in the assessor’s file. Information about the Creekside Bed and Breakfast in Paso Robles can also be located through a number of lodging web-sites.
Note: After Tom Bordonaro was elected to the state assembly, his partner in AAA Plus Business Services took sole ownership of the Paso Robles tax preparation service.
The cost of running the Assessor’s Office has increased by more than 40 percent, from $5,768,270 to $8,207,665 over a five-year period, while staffing has remained relatively constant.