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

Angela Torrens, a realtor who chairs the Franklin-Laguna Community Council, says that Angelo Tsakopoulos was the driving force behind the Laguna Creek floodway, which allowed him to subdivide and build on thousands of acres upstream. Torrens says all of Live Oak II's environmentally friendly promises have failed to bear fruit. Literally. "Not even the planting was done up right," she says. (In 1995, the Army Corps of Engineers fined Sacramento $170,000 for dropping the ball on 65 acres of vernal pool replacements. Also in 1995, new homes in North Laguna Creek flooded.)

Torrens talks about Tsakopoulos recently partnering with the giant Lennar Corp. to develop sub-, ex-, and post-burbia in an ever-widening, hundred-mile circle around Sacramento. Lennar, she says, just bought a piece of North Laguna Creek. None of this would have been possible had not someone fully developed the floodway.

Is it just a coincidence that the someone happened to be a partnership partly owned by former Assembly Speaker Willie Lewis Brown Jr.?

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.

When Live Oak Associates II bought into North Laguna Creek, public records show it agreed to pay $3.7 million for 285 acres. As the Sacramento City Council tacked approvals onto Live Oak's subdivisions, general partners William Falik and Jonathan Cohen sold them off piecemeal to homebuilders. Over a nine-year period, public records show, Live Oak sold its stake for $13 million, leaving a gross profit of about $9 million. Cohen says the net profit was "around $2 or $3 million." But he was not specific about how the remaining $6 million to $7 million in gross profit was used, and some of his general claims about the amount of profit the project earned do not appear to be supported by the public record.

The inner structure of Live Oak Associates II is not a matter of confirmed public record. The documents available to SF Weekly suggest that Willie Brown owns somewhere between half of 1 percent and 4 percent of Live Oak II. If the North Laguna Creek project's gross profit was $9 million, this translates into a return for Brown of between $45,000 and $360,000. If it was as low as $3 million, Brown made between $15,000 and $120,000.

To be sure, the public record contains no evidence that Willie Brown used his official position as speaker of the Assembly to further only his own financial interests in North Laguna Creek. Although Brown's highway and light rail bill greatly enhanced the value of Live Oak's properties, it also affected the holdings of other developers.

It is very clear that Angelo Tsakopoulos was the organizing force behind taking Laguna Creek out of the flood plain, so that he could build out his megadevelopments. In Sacramento, public officials have kowtowed to Tsakopoulos for 20 years. As congressman, Vic Fazio would probably see nothing wrong with jamming the EPA at the request of a powerful constituent. Willie Brown would probably see nothing wrong with voting for -- and sponsoring -- bills that incidentally served his financial well-being. Nor would Brown or Fazio see anything wrong with taking tens of thousands of dollars from a developer whose net worth floats up and down in relation to governmental actions taken by Brown and Fazio.

Reviewing the record: Tsakopoulos needed Laguna Creek taken out of the flood plain. The EPA was making this impossible. Fazio called the EPA in support of the floodway project. Shortly thereafter, Live Oak Associates II optioned potentially prime acreage surrounding the creek. The EPA surrendered. Live Oak bought the land. North Laguna Creek was removed from the flood plain. The city of Sacramento not only built the floodway, it also put in vital infrastructure practically free of charge to Live Oak. The city needlessly paid Live Oak an inflated $1.35 million for open space. The city changed its zoning laws to accommodate Live Oak's effortless entitlement process. Willie Brown sponsored a bill that put a quarter-billion-dollar light rail project at the doorstep of North Laguna Creek. Live Oak sold the land for about $9 million more than it owed on it. After lobbying from Live Oak Associates II, the city expeditiously annexed 400 nearby acres in which Live Oak and Tsakopoulos' partners held substantial ownership, vastly multiplying the value of this land. Tsakopoulos obtained all the government permits he needed to develop the rest of Laguna Creek.

Whether or not Willie Lewis Brown Jr. actively participated in the North Laguna Creek development deal, he certainly profited by it. And without a remarkable series of government assists and giveaways at all levels and stages, there would have been no development, and no profit.

Brown did not return phone calls asking for explanations of the unusual events that led to the creation of North Laguna Creek. Tsakopoulos said he did not know that Willie Brown was an investor in Live Oak II. And so one is left to wonder.

Was it just a piece of pure luck that Live Oak II was cut into the middle of a deal at the very moment that deal was being thwarted by federal and state agencies? A deal that almost immediately went from certain-no to absolute-go? A deal in which Live Oak II made millions of dollars, and a confluence of business and political interests ended up serving Angelo Tsakopoulos, the quasi-godfather to California's Democratic Party elite?

Or was it just one of the ways that Willie Brown has made his money over the last three decades?

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