Political Economy

How a Willie Brown real estate venture snagged tens of millions of dollars in government subsidies and opened the way for Democratic heavyweight Angelo Tsakopoulo to make even more money

Obtaining entitlements for land that has been considered undevelopable involves many activities. For Angelo Tsakopoulos, one of those activities appears to be the making of large campaign contributions. Tsakopoulos isn't just a developer who contributes to political candidates; he is one of the most influential donors in the entire Democratic Party. Over the years, the Tsakopoulos family has donated many millions to local, state, and federal candidates, mostly Democrats. Vic Fazio, for instance, could always count on the maximum contribution from Tsakopoulos. And in the last presidential election, Tsakopoulos donated $185,000 to the Democratic National Committee. In gratitude for Tsakopoulos' gifts, Bill Clinton let the real estate magnate sleep in Lincoln's bedroom. In deference to his importance, Clinton once visited Tsakopoulos' home for a fund-raiser.

For decades, Tsakopoulos' soft money has flooded the campaign war chests of California's Democratic Party. For instance, in 1991 Tsakopoulos donated $50,000 to the Willie Brown Initiative Committee, a group formed to secure Democratic Party control of legislative and congressional districts. And he has particular favorites in the government. For example, Tsakopoulos took now-state Treasurer Phil Angelides under his wing in 1983, making him chief executive officer of his real estate firm, AKT Development Corp. Until he took office this year, Angelides regularly received consulting fees from Tsakopoulos. He still participates in the older man's extensive real estate partnerships, including the Kramer Ranch, a property adjacent to Live Oak's North Laguna Creek.

Between 1988 and 1991, as entitlements were being finalized and North Laguna Creek was being built out, Angelides contributed over $30,000 to Willie Brown's various campaign committees. Tsakopoulos gave Angelides almost $1 million for his two runs for state treasurer in 1994 and 1998.

Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos has given generously to Democratic coffers.
Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos has given generously to Democratic coffers.
Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos has given generously to Democratic coffers.
Owen Bewer/ Sacramento Bee
Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos has given generously to Democratic coffers.

According to California's Fair Political Practices Commission, Tsakopoulos' largess has even leaked into the private pockets of government officials. In the late 1980s, Sacramento County Supervisor William Bryan went to prison after he failed to disclose $250,000 in loans from Angelo Tsakopoulos. The FPPC alleged that the loans were made to Bryan in return for his votes to favorably rezone Tsakopoulos' and Angelides' holdings slightly west of North Laguna Creek. Tsakopoulos was not charged in the matter.

Tsakopoulos has suggested in the past that his campaign contributions are unconnected to government decisions that would benefit his business activities. Clearly, though, there is a perception that Tsakopoulos' spreading of his wealth has given him enormous power.

B. Demarr Hooper is the attorney for Sheldon Farms, a development next to Tsakopoulos' Kramer Ranch, a several-hundred-acre development that Laguna Creek flows through. Hooper says that Tsakopoulos was the driving force behind taking Laguna Creek out of the flood plain, which would set a precedent so Tsakopoulos could develop his own properties, which, in addition to Kramer Ranch, include vast tracts in what is known as the Laguna Creek area. Although he declined to be more specific, Hooper says that political pressure has been exerted on the development of Laguna Creek, and Fazio provided part of that pressure at a "higher level." And Hooper is "aware of situations" in which Tsakopoulos used political pressure to "minimize red tape."

In an interview, Tsakopoulos said he did not lobby for the floodway, and said he did not know that the EPA was opposed to filling in the wetlands.

Vicki Lee, leader of the Sacramento Sierra Club, claims that Tsakopoulos is the mastermind behind much of the sprawl encircling the Sacramento metropolitan area. "He is able," Lee says, "to stand up at a meeting of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and redraw the urban services boundaries on the chalkboard. And the supervisors nod, and vote for whatever he says. He can throw a mound of dirt around a subdivision, and have it removed from the flood plain."

As the acknowledged leader of a dozen Laguna Creek-based developers, Tsakopoulos has looked out for the big picture. He and Angelides own -- or have sold -- thousands of acres between Routes 5 and 99, in Greater Laguna Creek. After the EPA surrendered to the needs of Live Oak II at the headwaters of Laguna Creek, Tsakopoulos got a green light to develop residential neighborhoods and shopping complexes throughout the area. Additional flood control projects have turned the creek itself into a sluice; hundreds of acres of land have been brought out of the flood plain; and brightly colored malls are springing up where the vernal pools used to be.

The transportation improvements that serve Live Oak's North Laguna Creek also serve Tsakopoulos' much more extensive holdings. Most stunning to see is the new road system that has been built to serve Tsakopoulos' and Angelides' Laguna West: thousands of "pedestrian-oriented" homes that turned out, ironically, to be highly auto-dependent.

But, 15 years ago, none of this existed. It was not until the regulatory logjam was broken in late 1987 that Tsakopoulos' Kramer Ranch and other Laguna Creek properties could be brought into play. And it was Live Oak Associates II that broke the jam, getting a floodway built, the flood plain map changed to allow residential development, and a bevy of unusual givebacks and giveaways granted. Live Oak made millions.

And, after stopping at North Laguna Creek, Sacramento's new light rail trains will speed on to service the commuter villages rising up from the flood plains of the Tsakopoulosian Sprawl.

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