Letter to the Editor by Bryant Owens


Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Dear Editor, I want to respond to Tom Frazier’s recent articles as ombudsman to the Sun Star.


I am neither content with the Sun Star nor happy with a lot of situations in the County of Merced that could have been better covered or perhaps influenced by scrutiny of the press.  With few exceptions the Sun Star’s reporting has been too folksy to be taken seriously as a curb to governmental abuse, which I feel is a blatant source of wrongdoing contributing to what might be termed our collective woes; foreclosures, unemployment, environmental rapine, political apathy etc.


The public’s overwhelming apathy towards governmental abuse will only be overcome by keeping the mechanisms of government visible and understandable.  The Sun Star could do a better job of that by showing the public in detail how the Rule of Law applies to the Merced County General Plan; how that document is analogous to the State and Federal Constitutions with regard to the distribution and use of county resources; and how having many more residents participating in and debating county decisions (sweeping our own front porches as it were) is the most effective means of chastening, supporting and defending our whole nation.


The board of supervisors and its staff has got to take responsibility for the condition we find the county in at this point.  It was their unvarnished love affair with the building industry during the recent boom that caused the massive inventory of unoccupied homes, unbuilt residential lots in unfinished gated communities and foreclosures on seemingly every block of Merced County’s six cities. But where does that buck stop?


Nationally there is a movement afoot to prosecute members of the previous administration for ‘crimes’ committed during their terms in office. Whichever side of that debate one may be on it is clearly in the best interest of the country to have an open debate in the appropriate forums to determine what the law is, and to zealously defend or prosecute questions that are brought before the courts for resolution.  Local issues are just as important overall and perhaps even more pertinent to the Sun Star and its readers.  The integrity of our constabulary, the courts and the administration in Merced County should be at least as important to Mercedians as the changing political make up of the Swat Valley in Iraq.  Yet few here in Merced understand the political mechanism by which Dee Tatum sits as the ‘president’ of Merced County with each Supervisor acting as ‘governor’ of their respective districts.


Perhaps with that brief foray into civics, and permission for the political analogy, I have laid a sufficient foundation to reiterate several complaints and issues against ‘President’ Tatum and the ‘Governors’ of the five ‘states’ comprising Merced County, which issues and complaints though having been initially reported by the Sun Star, have been orphaned due to attrition or reassignment of the Sun Star staff. 


Tom Frazier listed the following issues in his 4/18/09 article: [“Now the Sun-Star seems to have its eye on Dee Tatum, the county’s chief executive officer. Stories about his retirement, his retirement retracted, a Planada land “deal,” his wife’s pay raise, an editorial that claimed Tatum was hiding behind his public information officer and the latest salvo — an article about his salary increases from 2001 to 2009. Is the Sun-Star trolling for another investigative reporting award?”]


To this list of questionable activities I would add the charge of lying to the Merced Grand Jury regarding the Planada Land Deal, promotion of the Riverside Motorsports Park and the issue of hiring an unqualified person as Planning Director for Merced County.  


The Sun Star is already in possession of documents which show Dee Tatum’s intimate involvement in the transfer and purchase of the Housing Authority property on which he subsequently built the home and in which he now resides in Planada, and which bely Tatum’s version of events as he is reported to have told the investigators then seated on the Grand Jury wherein he and his wife purportedly submitted a ‘bid’ on the open market for that property. To date on this issue the Merced Grand Jury has merely done its investigative duty and that poorly, but failed to do its job. (Imagine David Frost extracting a confession from Richard Nixon, but without the happy outcome of that interview).    As there is no continuity from one year to the next, unless resubmitted by the District Attorney or the public, the issues considered by the grand jury not leading to criminal charges die with the report and recommendations which are submitted with to none other than (wait for it…) the board of supervisors.  Will everyone please repeat after me…The price of freedom is eternal vigilance? The Sun Star has a responsibility to keep this issue alive.


With regard to impeaching ‘President’ Tatum for high crimes and misdemeanors, his associations with Tom Nevis of Pacific Holt Corporation and John Condren of Riverside Motorsports Park also need to be more thoroughly aired.  How does a County CEO that had a distinguished career in the Air Force serving in the Office of Special Investigations and specializing in fraud detection and counterintelligence suffer the likes and schemes of confidence man John Condren; subjecting the county to the time and ultimate expense of the proposed Riverside Motorsports Park? Did Tatum somehow benefit from the zoning changes made to and around Castle AFB as a result of the RMP and its subsequent failure? Considering how many grants are attracted to Castle and how much money therefore flows through Tatum’s hands, it would seem so!


And, while Condren was busy with his smoke and mirrors another swindler (under the aegis of Pacific Holt Corp) was working quietly behind the scenes gaining favor with Merced County officials and setting up shop as a land developer.  Tom Nevis was released from Lompoc Federal Prison, Vandenberg AFB, in 2002 after serving 7 years having been convicted for defrauding the FDIC and for his participation in the downfall of the Corvallis Savings & Loan in Oregon.  Mr. Nevis was caught defrauding a lending institution over land deals involving an abandoned Air Force base in New Mexico (sound familiar?).  Nevis had civil and criminal judgments against him amounting to over $36 million dollars, which the FDIC has never recovered.  After his release Nevis established an office across from the Merced County courthouse and in short order he had a list of high powered employees and business associates including among others: Mr. and Mrs. Tatum, who bought that certain 24 acre parcel from Tom Nevis through Pacific Holt Corporation in a convoluted land transaction involving the Housing Authority; County Supervisor Gloria Cortez-Keene who became Nevis’s Planada real estate consultant at $10,000 per month; and Mark Melville,  previously city manager of Gustine and Livingston and former police chief who became Nevis’ project manager. (Melville has the distinction of inveigling the county on projects for both Nevis and Condren).


So what?, that Condren and Nevis are confidence men and crooks who used their savvy to get government officials and staff to influence land use decisions in their favor, in spite of clear goals and policies to the contrary spelled out in the County’s General Plan, the written framework within which the supervisors collectively are meant to balance residential development with enjoyment and cultivation, in the administrative disposition of the county’s physical resources?  Unfortunately, as egregious as it sounds, influence over politicians is the way things get done in a democracy. Power to direct land use decisions in this county is the most important asset one can control.  Each supervisor only has one vote on each issue.  Tatum, on the other hand, controls which issues actually come before the board; and beyond that he shapes every aspect of the county budget, including pay hikes for department heads and supervisors. One hand washes the other… Tatum among all county employees should be held to the highest standards and be subject to scrutiny commensurate with his influence over every aspect of county governance.  


Tangible remuneration for the sort of influence Tatum can exert, though permissible, needs to be accurately and promptly reported by the recipient in order to be legal, and in that regard Mr. Tatum stands in jeopardy [with regard to the ultimate sale price and actual value of his property in Planada].  Failure to accurately document the Planada transaction is a criminal omission which should legally oust Tatum from his current job and from what without further public scrutiny will likely become a golden parachute attached to a cushy consulting job for the county in the near future.  That political infraction is now under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission of California.   However that is not the only illegality that taints the power and sway Tatum holds over the County.  . 


Historically, the public has complained about the inclination of the Planning Department in favor of residential development in the county, and particularly about the multiple planning related  ‘hats’ worn by William Nicholson the former Director.  Supervisor Kelsey’s agitation over this bias led to a nationwide search to replace Mr. Nicholson as Executive Director and after a fairly straightforward vetting process, Mr. Willard Chow, a well qualified candidate, was hired as the new Planning Director in November of 2005.  However, a week before Mr. Chow was to begin work, the Board was informed that Mr. Robert Lewis of Henderson Nevada would be taking on the job.  ‘Bobby’ Lewis came before the board of supervisors for their approval without the required credentials or job experience and was not vetted through the process that the county used (at no small expense) to find Mr. Chow.  Lewis was vetted solely by Mr. Tatum.  Mr. Lewis stepped into a job he was not qualified for at an exorbitant salary, a dedicated sock puppet, beholden to Dee Tatum for his job; pushing through residential development projects at Tatum’s behest in exchange for a salary he doesn’t yet deserve.  No one has ever presented any bona fides for Lewis, including Lewis. But, I digress. 


It is a criminal violation of a county ordinance for Tatum to have proposed Lewis [an unqualified candidate for Planning Director] to the Supervisors, and for Tatum to have used his influence with the Board to conceal Lewis’ lack of credentials, for whatever reason.  Municipalities outside of Merced County have brought criminal convictions against administrators who have hired unqualified persons to fill racial quotas, for example.  Tatum circumvented the hiring process and got Bobby Lewis employed in the Planning Department without the required credentials.  In spite of the fact that this abuse of his authority happened in December of 2005 it needs to be fully exposed and prosecuted.   


Why, as Tom Frazier has suggested, pick a different target than Tatum for the Sun Star’s scrutiny?  Why isn’t the paper hounding the DA and the Grand Jury about this? Why not grill Dee Tatum for that matter, if he’s so willing to talk to the press.  Why are the supervisors so equivocal on these issues other than their obscene pay raises and discretionary spending funds orchestrated on their behalf by Tatum over the last 8 year? Tom Frazier’s article requests from his readers responses on Sun Star coverage, well; I think there is a lot more meat to chew off of these bones and sooner rather than later! The chronological series of stories that have appeared in the Sun Star point clearly to wrongdoing and the need for further investigation and prosecution.  The Sun Star has all the dots. What’s wrong with connecting them effectively?




Bryant Owens