How Ron Varasteh and I Turned Dave Ellis from a Fake Water-Engineer-ish Entity to a Common Lobbyist

Dave Ellis in Green

For Ron Varasteh to beat Dave Ellis will take hard work, given Ellis’s celebrated ability to put together a coherent team.

Summary

Ron Varasteh is a candidate for Water Board (Municipal Water District of Orange County Seat 5; I’m a candidate for Seat 1.)  Among his three opponents is Dave Ellis — one of the top, least scrupulous, and most feared political/campaign consultants in Orange County.  (Ellis was also Chair of the Orange County Fair Board when he and other Board members tried to sell it to themselves starting in 2009; he’s not someone you should want to trust with public office.)

The top thing that a candidate in a Water Board race wants is to get the word “Water” into their ballot designation, so that voters will assume that they are qualified.  That would seem to be a problem for a political and campaign consultant like Ellis.  But a small portion of Ellis’s consulting work is for the Yucaipa Valley Water District; he gets paid well for keeping them up to date in legislative developments and, apparently, to lobby for them.  Based almost entirely on that one client, Ellis wanted to tell unsuspecting voters that he was a “Businessman/Water Consultant.”  “Water Consultant” implied that he’d be someone, usually a scientist or engineer, consulted about technical issues of water management, delivery, quality, etc. — rather than being consulted on issues of how to win a political vote or fund a water project.

It’s hard to win a case challenging a ballot designation — but Varasteh wanted to try and I was willing to represent him.  And we won.

The judge was unwilling to give Ellis the Water Board race version of the death penalty (completely removing the word “Water” from his three-word ballot designation.)  But he did reason that, while Ellis consulted for at least one Water District, he did not consult on technical issues involving water — which is what “Water Consultant” implied.  So the judge offered him a different designation: “Water District Consultant.”  Neither party was clear on what a “Water District Consultant” is — and it meant he’d have to drop “Businessman” from his designation as well — but Ellis accepted it, given that the alternative was just “Businessman.”  Only later did it become more clear that “Water District Consultant” is basically a way of saying “a lobbyist for Water Districts” — which makes it a perfect designation for Ellis, and explains why he’d be a lousy Water Board member.

Leaving powerful, unscrupulous, and conniving Dave Ellis a less appealing candidate for the voters whom he wants to abuse — election law rarely gets more satisfying than that!

You probably know that there must be a longer version of this piece coming up.  It appears just below the sea-green waves.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1. Introduction to ‘Battles of the Ballot’

Back on August 28, I represented my friend Ron Varasteh, a candidate for Seat 5 on the Municipal Water District Board of Directors, in two cases regarding the ballot designations and candidate statements of two of his rivals for the position: longtime Irvine Company Executive Satoru “Sat” Tamibuchi and legendarily vicious and vindictive, conniving and twisted, political consultant Dave Ellis.  (A fourth candidate, Jose Vergara of the small El Toro Water District, was not the target of a lawsuit.)

When it comes to Water Board races, here’s most of what you need to know: common wisdom is that people will vote for anyone with the word “Water” in their ballot designation over anyone whose ballot designation omits that word.  So candidates will strain to get the word “water” into their ballot designation with all of the desperate effort of Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to cram their feet into the glass slippers.

Your ballot designation, unless you’re an incumbent or a few other factors apply, is supposed to reflect how you made your money in the past year — a profession, vocation, or occupation.  (To make things easier, I’ll refer to these collectively as “occupation.”)  You may have more than one such occupation, but your choice of ballot designation is not supposed to confuse the public.

Most judges, however, give candidates a lot of slack when it comes to ballot designations and candidate statements — which is sort of a drag for those of us who don’t want to mislead the public.  I’m a candidate for Seat 1 on the same Board that Varasteh is running for — and if I had wanted to be really sneaky I could have taken just one case on something related to water rights — and on that basis laid claim to the title of “Water Law Attorney.”  I didn’t try, because most of my practice would still involve Government Accountability Law and Plaintiff’s Employment Law — not  Water Law — and I wouldn’t want to mislead the public.  Similarly, as an Engineer, Varasteh might have been able to finagle a way to make his work with telephone utilities fit under a “water” rubric — but he wouldn’t be likely to try.

Not everyone is that scrupulous.  Dave Ellis, as will surprise no one who knows of him, is a good example of someone who isn’t.

It’s hard to win a case challenging a ballot designation — but Varasteh wanted to try and I was willing to represent him.  So this is the story of how Ron Varasteh and I challenged Ellis really good proposed ballot designation and replace it with to a less powerful but more accurate one.

2. Dave Ellis — Haven’t I Heard That Name Before?

Yes.  Yes, if you read OC’s political blogs, or if you read about OC (mostly Republican) politics, then you probably have.

I don’t have space here to review all of Dave Ellis’s history of crimes against OC-manity, though I’m hoping that both Vern Nelson and John Earl may contribute to a “Why Never to Vote for Dave Ellis” series of posts before voting gets too far underway.

From posts in the OJB archives, Vern’s post might include reference to this one, this one, surely this one, DEFINITELY this one and this one, maybe this one (mentioning OCDA Racky’s role in exonerating Ellis), maybe this one, likely this onevery likely this one, this one too, and this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and I’d think this one about Buck Johns as a chaser.

Most of those deal with Ellis’s official malfeasance as Chair of the Orange County Fair Board — which under his leadership tried to sell the Fairgrounds to a private group composed of … Ellis and most of the other Directors!  THAT’S the kind of guy we’re talking about here.  In a County with a real functioning DA, Ellis would not be running for office — he’d be running the laundry room in some minimum security prison.  Others of the posts involve his being brought in to lead the campaign against Tony Bushala and the recall of Fullerton’s aged and crusted City Council members in the wake of the killing of Kelly Thomas — which Vern found unendearing.

John Earl is the blogosphere’s expert on Water issues, and I’m sure that he could do a nice number on what sort of incredible self-serving corruption we could expect from Ellis.

As for me, I did a lot of research on Ellis prior to filing the suit against him, and I assembled plenty of evidence suggesting that, among campaign consultants, he is pretty much the scum of the earth — and proud of it!  He gets clients due to their fear of what he will do to them if they don’t hire him and he works for an opponent.  One former client referred to him as “Satan.”  (I proposed “Water Satan” as a compromise ballot designation; his lawyer didn’t accept it.)  Do not even consider voting for Dave Ellis until I publish that piece on his history as a consultant— or do your own search on “Dave Ellis and political consultant” and “Dave Ellis and campaign consultant”  and settle down for hours and hours of harrowing reading.

3. The Case Against Dave Ellis

As noted above — the top thing that a candidate in a Water Board race wants is to get the word “Water” into their ballot designation, so that voters will assume that they are qualified.  (Sad, but true.) That would seem to be a problem for a political and campaign consultant like Ellis.

But a small portion of Ellis’s consulting work is for the Yucaipa Valley Water District; he gets paid well for keeping them up to date in legislative developments and, apparently, to lobby for them.  Based almost entirely on that one client, Ellis wanted to tell unsuspecting voters that he was a “Businessman/Water Consultant.”  “Water Consultant,” it seemed to Ron and me, implied that he’d be someone, usually a scientist or engineer, consulted about technical issues of water management, delivery, quality, etc. — rather than being consulted on issues of how to win a political vote or fund a water project.

[Note: We actually had two challenges to Dave Ellis, although the second one was less important.  We also challenged his candidate statement on the grounds that he said that he had “experience in the development of recycled water in the upper reach of the Santa Ana River,” which eventually reaches Orange County.  This, we argued, implied that he was involved in developing that resource in some technical way — not merely as a lobbyist (or, for that matter, as a graphic artist for brochures.)  I won’t hold you in suspense: without giving his rationale, the judge decided that his candidate statement was acceptable.]

I compiled dozens of references to Dave Ellis in the local press that contained his name and the word “Consultant.”  “Political consultant” and “campaign consultant” were all over the place — as well as celebrations of his success and condemnations of his methods.  But there was only one story — a fairly fawning one — that mentioned the phrase “Water Consultant.”  It was published the day after we filed Ron’s complaint.  Even in his fundraising pitch to potential contributors, he only mentions his involvement with one client in the water industry as an aside.  Si the question was: if the term “Water Consultant” had any meaning, was Dave Ellis’s expertise within its range?

4. A Brief Digression on the Tamaribuchi Case

I’ll deal briefly with the Tamaribuchi claim — which essentially said that (1) you can’t claim a ballot designation of “Water Quality Engineer” if your last job (and the massive portion of your income) has been spent as a top executive with the Irvine Company doing “executive-type” work, and (2) you can’t claim in your candidate statement that you’re running on a platform of “Government Transparency” if nothing in your ballot designation or candidate statement gives any hint of your extremely close relationship with a major commercial OC consumer of water — that being the Irvine Company!  The Judge disagreed, holding that candidates have a really, really large amount of slack in how they represent themselves to the public.

There was also the problem that, unbeknownst to me despite my putting in a lot of time trying to figure out if Tamaribuchi was still employed at all — it turns out that he was still closely tied to the Irvine Company as a consultant to them — and that his current work for the Irvine Company did fit the description of “contract engineer.”  We may cover that now well-documented close relationship in a future post, but for now all I’ll say is this: If you think the Irvine Company has too little influence in Orange County, and you want a candidate who is very likely to support the Irvine Company’s interests pretty much, I’m betting, any time they arise — then you should vote for Satoru Tamaribuchi, because (despite not mentioning it in his candidate statement) he is VERY, VERY TIED to the Irvine Company.  (If not, then you should vote for Ron Varasteh.  If not Ron, then Jose Vergara.  Under no circumstances should you vote for Dave Ellis.  Better for your karma not to vote at all.)

Anyway, Tamaribuchi won his case, in which he was represented by celebrated anti-gay attorney Mark Rosen, who was in the news earlier this year trying to keep LGBT Vietnamese out of the Tet Parade.  He lost — and also lost a challenge against Doug Pettibone the previous day where he said that Pettibone’s mentioning that he was endorsed by Tom Tait violated the statute stating that one could not mention other candidates in the same race in one’s candidate statement — despite that Tait is running for Mayor, not City Council, which is a different race. (The judge in the other Election Challenges courtroom made short work of that one.)

The most entertaining thing about the Tamaribuchi hearing was Rosen’s argument that the fact that he was a Vice-President of the huge and powerful Irvine Company was pretty meaningless, and didn’t mean that he no longer toiled in the fields with other Water Quality Engineers:

[DIAMOND] HAS NO PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE OF WHAT IT
MEANS TO BE A VICE PRESIDENT. BANKS, FOR EXAMPLE, HAVE
LIKE FIVE VICE PRESIDENTS AT EVERY BRANCH. UNITED
STATES HAS ONE VICE PRESIDENT. “VICE PRESIDENT” MEANS A
WHOLE BUNCH OF THINGS TO A WHOLE BUNCH OF DIFFERENT
PEOPLE.

My response to him, both for the record and, in this case, in the record:

IF THEY WANT TO SAY THAT [TAMARIBUCHI’S] POSITION WITH THE
IRVINE COMPANY WAS IN SOME WAY COMPARABLE TO THAT OF A
VICE PRESIDENT OF A BRANCH BANK, THEN THEY MAY CERTAINLY
MAKE THAT ARGUMENT. BUT HE WAS THE PERSON HOLDING THE
AWARD THAT THE IRVINE COMPANY GOT FOR THEIR WORK IN
ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES. I DON’T THINK THAT HE WAS JUST
SOME INSIGNIFICANT PERSON THERE. BUT MR. ROSEN CAN MAKE
THAT ARGUMENT.

(Mark Rosen, let it be noted, is not a political consultant.)

But the most substantively important thing about the Tamaribuchi case turned out to be this: Satoru Tamaribuchi — former Vice-President, now Water Quality Consultant — turned out to be an excellent example of what was meant by the term “Water Consultant.”  He was such a good example of what a “Water Consultant” is, in fact, that it showed what a bad example of that term Dave Ellis was.

5. The Verdict on Dave Ellis

The judge quickly honed in on the crux of the case: was the service Ellis offered that of a “Water Consultant”?

I TRY TO GIVE A BROAD
[CONSTRUCTION] TO THE TERMS, ESSENTIALLY AS THE LAW
OBVIOUSLY SUGGESTS IN THIS AREA YOU GET PRETTY WIDE
[BERTH] TO THE — WHAT THE CANDIDATE CHOOSES. AND I THINK
THE TERM “WATER CONSULTANT” IS GOING TO CONNOTE SOMEONE
WHO HAS A LEVEL OF EXPERTISE WHERE THEY ARE CONSULTING
ON THE TOPIC OF WATER MANAGEMENT, WATER USE, WATER
QUALITY, WATER WHATEVER. AND THAT’S WHAT I FIND
PROBLEMATIC ABOUT MR. ELLIS’S DESIGNATION.

THAT BEING SAID, HE’S DONE, I THINK, A
SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF WORK IN TERMS OF CONSULTING WITH,
EVEN IF IT MAY BE FOR PR PURPOSES, AND IT MAY BE FOR
PURPOSES OF GAINING LEGISLATION THAT HE IS A SORT OF
WATER CONSULTANT. BUT HE’S NOT CONSULTING ON AREAS OF
WATER EXPERTISE. AND I THINK THE TERM WOULD FAIRLY
CONNOTE.

I love it when a judge gets it.  Now we find out what he would propose to order as the new term.  We had asked for deletion of the word “Water,” with our without also deleting the word “Consultant.”  So: “Businessman” or “Businessman/Consultant.”  The judge had a more creative compromise in mind.

SO I WOULD FIND THE TERM “WATER DISTRICT
CONSULTANT” TO BE A PERMISSIBLE TERM FOR HIM. SO UNLESS
YOU DON’T WANT THAT, I WOULD ORDER THAT HE BE DESIGNATED
AS A “WATER DISTRICT CONSULTANT.”

The judge was unwilling to give Ellis the Water Board race version of the death penalty (completely removing the word “Water” from his three-word ballot designation.)  But he did reason that, while Ellis consulted for at least one Water District, he did not consult on technical issues involving water — which is what “Water Consultant” implied.  So the judge offered him “Water District Consultant.”

Neither party was clear on what a “Water District Consultant” is — and, I reminded the court, the three-word limit meant he’d have to drop “Businessman” from his designation as well.  Ellis’s attorney Rancho Santa Margarita attorney Steve Baric proposed the compromise of giving Ellis exactly what he had proposed — but the judge was not fooled.  The alternative he offered to Baric was just “Businessman.”  Given that alternative, Baric accepted the initial proposal. Only later did it become more clear that “Water District Consultant” is basically a way of saying “a lobbyist for Water Districts” — which makes it a perfect designation for Ellis.  It explains why he’d be a lousy Water Board member.

So this has been the story of how Ron Varasteh and I challenged a really good ballot designation that Ellis had claimed — “Water Consultant” — to try to force him to use a more accurate one that, due it its accuracy, would be less effective for him.  We achieved a good result — and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.  Ellis, who has a reputation as a gifted political shakedown artist, may have more money to spend than everyone else in the race combined, but he’ll also have a accurate — and embarrassingly lousy — ballot designation.

Leaving powerful, unscrupulous, and conniving Dave Ellis as a deservedly less appealing candidate for the voters whose pocketbooks he wants to abuse — I’ll tell you, election law rarely gets more satisfying than that!


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)