I’ve always greatly enjoyed Mary Duan’s columns in the Monterey County Weekly, and I enjoyed most of her farewell column this week. With her husband’s lottery winnings tucked into a mattress, she has stepped down as editor after a productive and sometimes grueling six years.
Thursday’s column was about politics and Mary’s decision to enjoy life for a while. The part I didn’t love was the little section where she sort of lost her way while writing about Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter and his effort to fight off a challenge by a strong candidate, Mary Adams.
She wrote about how the Weekly had endorsed Potter, setting off some serious groaning from the left side of the political divide, which constitutes a good share of the paper’s readership. I have it on good authority that Duan argued mightily for an Adams endorsement but was outmuscled by her bosses, who got on the Potter train long ago and stayed onboard while others departed. (I’ve always suspected it has something to do with Potter being a good source, especially when he needs to divert the attention of journalists looking too closely at his affairs.) The result of the internal debate at the Weekly was an endorsement editorial that made note of Potter’s “integrity” issues. You won’t find that part quoted in Potter’s campaign mailers.
Here’s the portion of Duan column that I found, well, exasperating.
“There’s a heated level of vitriol being thrown our way because of the Potter endorsement – progressives, it turns out, can be a hostile bunch,” Duan wrote. “I don’t think we’ve been called stupid, but we have been called inept and corrupt.
“Potter gets called corrupt a lot, by the way. He’s done some dumb stuff, but in terms of outright corruption, I haven’t been able to prove it (and boy have I tried) and neither has anyone else. My message to the angry progressives is this: Prove it. Prove what you think you know.”
I would be surprised if I didn’t enter Duan’s thoughts at least fleetingly while she wrote that last paragraph. And here’s why. While I don’t have a file of documents that a prosecutor could take to a grand jury and get Potter thrown in jail, I have been involved in covering Potter for 16 years now and I believe it has been proved several times now that if not outright, damnably corrupt, he is ethically challenged to the point that he should not be in office. Corrupt is a pretty big word. One of the Merriam-Webster definitions is a good one, “Doing things that are dishonest or illegal in order to make money or to gain or keep power.” Ms. Duan, I think it has been proved that the definition applies to the fellow your former employer endorsed. (It should be noted that my former employer, the Herald, has endorsed him as well.)
The publisher of another weekly paper in the area, the Carmel Pine Cone, has accused me over the years of being out to get Potter, though he has never explained why. The truth is that, like most people who know Potter, I like the guy. He can be a real charmer and he knows more than anyone else about two of my favorite topics, local politics and governance. Even when he has been beyond irritated at something I had written about him, he and I have managed to have pleasant and even constructive conversations. For instance, he was the one who explained to me why former Supervisor Lou Calcagno is endorsing Supervisor Jane Parker instead of her challenger, Dennis Donohue. It’s because Donohue has signed onto a plan to let the city of Salinas spill over onto some of the wonderful farmland south and west of town.
So, back to the point. What has been proven about Potter, his method of operations and his integrity? I can only tell you what I know, which is a fair amount.
Two examples make my point about Potter’s integrity, and I’ll go into some detail about those. For now, let’s not worry about the house he bought from the land-use lawyer’s family, the building and coastal permits his construction company forgot to obtain before starting projects, the time he was using campaign money to pay his construction company rent, the time he bought a car from a dealer who was seeking a coastal permit while Potter was on the Coastal Commission or the time he tried to arrange free property at Fort Ord so his company could build a hockey rink there. The list of troubling but not indictable acts goes on.
Let’s focus instead on the Nader Agha campaign contribution and the forgery allegation.
Agha, of course, is the local developer and antique dealer who has been pursuing a desalination plant in competition with Cal Am’s. He is well known for his generosity, both to charities and to politicians.
You can read a Monterey Herald article about the issue here and get the details but I’ll summarize the key points.
In January 2004, Potter asked Agha for a $10,000 campaign contribution. But rather than have him make the check out to his campaign fund as legally required, he asked Agha to make the check out to a business associate, Russ Carter, one of a group of San Jose investors who have repeatedly lent money to Potter over the years.
Much later, then-county Supervisor Lou Calcagno told Agha that the money had gone toward a vacation rather than campaign expenses. To make a long story short, Agha then sued Potter for return of the money and – and this is key here – included a copy of the canceled check to Carter along with the legal filing.
Potter denied everything and insisted that he had been exonerated through an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission. It’s true that the FPPC didn’t take any action. It seldom does. But Potter was never able to explain why Agha had written a $10,000 check out to a close Potter associate with whom he had no connection of his own.
Agha at one point said he would pursue the lawsuit vigorously to prove that Potter was lying. Unfortunately for those of us who care about facts, Potter did everything he could to keep the matter out of public scrutiny. Monterey public relations man David Armanasco went to Agha on Potter’s behalf and arranged a settlement. Rather than pursue the litigation, Agha agreed to settle out of court for an unreported amount and agreed with Potter’s request to have the settlement details sealed.
“I’m kicking myself,” Agha said later.
It is true that Agha’s assertions were never proved in court and that the FPPC didn’t charge Potter. But in the court of public opinion, the one in which Potter and Mary Duan and the Partisan reside, the canceled check to Carter is both persuasive and damning.
The forgery matter also made it into the courthouse but, like the Agha matter, was not resolved there. Still, in the court of common sense, Potter loses.
Again, there is a long Monterey Herald story that spells it all out, so we’ll only summarize here.
In 2012, Potter’s ex-wife, Patricia, said in court papers that Potter had forged her name on home loan documents after their estrangement so he could take out another mortgage on their Monterey home.
(The home, by the way, was one Potter had bought from the mother of land-use lawyer Tony Lombardo, with partial financing from the mother, but that’s another tale.)
Anyway, in court papers, Patricia Potter alleged that her former husband surreptitiously signed her name to the paperwork so he could obtain a second mortgage of $193,000. She said that $168,000 of that went to pay off loans that Potter had received from three San Jose investors, including Russ Carter (the fellow who had earlier cashed the $10,000 check from Agha.)
The paperwork was processed in San Jose, at a meeting Patricia Potter did not attend, and the signatures were notarized by a Silicon Valley real estate agent who is a business partner of the investors who received the $168,000. Patricia Potter alleged that her ex-husband then recorded the documents without her knowledge, something that her ex-husband’s lawyer actually verified in court papers.
The allegations went away without landing Potter in any real trouble. That’s because Herald reporter Jim Johnson, who wrote the story on the allegations, called Dave and Patricia Potter for comment and they got their heads together before returning his calls. By then, before the story came out, they had come to terms about disputed spousal support and agreed to say that the forgery allegation was the result of a simple misunderstanding.
The headline on the resulting Herald article said Patricia Potter had retracted the allegation. The last time I checked the court record, she had not done so in court papers.
To my way of thinking, Potter could have been prosecuted but the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office concluded that there was no case since Patricia Potter had changed her story. Some tough questioning of the real estate agent who notarized the signature might have produced a different result, but who knows.
Does this prove Potter is corrupt? His supporters won’t think so but many of those supporting Mary Adams will argue that the case has been made. That’s how it goes in politics. Those folks over at the other local weekly, the Pine Cone, are so blind to Potter’s failings that they may try to hold Adams accountable for the words on these pages. The ferocity of the Pine Cone’s repeated attacks on Adams, combined with its historic unwillingness to examine Potter’s record, suggests another form of misfeasance.
As I wrote above, Potter is an exceedingly knowledgeable politician. His understanding of the ins and outs of local governance is without parallel. He has done some good things and I do not believe that, deep down, he is an evil fellow. I believe that he has struggled financially at times, for reasons I do not understand, and that he has routinely cut corners and done worse to get by. Corrupt? You be the judge.
The Potter strategy in the current campaign is to portray Adams as inexperienced, incapable of stepping in to deal with the difficult realities of county government. My counter is that she is highly experienced in the equally complicated world of non-profit social services, that she is smart and quick, and that she carries absolutely none of the type of ethical baggage that causes even neutral observers of Dave Potter to question his sincerity in almost everything he does.
The election is June 7.