WASHINGTON — A top aide to a senior Long Beach-area congressman is resigning because, he said, his past association with a giant Orange County land developer "has cast a cloud" on his work on Capitol Hill.
James W. Barich, 33, a special assistant to Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-San Pedro) and former senior director of government relations for the Irvine Co., said controversy that erupted over the location of a new federal courthouse in Orange County prompted his decision.
At a congressional hearing last month, Anderson unexpectedly suggested that the new courthouse might be built in Irvine, instead of Santa Ana or Laguna Niguel--the two cities that previously had been identified as potential courthouse sites by the General Services Administration.
The only available land for a courthouse in Irvine is in Irvine Spectrum, a large office and industrial park near the junction of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways that is owned by the Irvine Co. Santa Ana officials, who had long sought the courthouse for their civic center area, were incensed by what they saw as belated intervention by Anderson and Barich on behalf of the city of Irvine, and perhaps the Irvine Co.
The courthouse project is expected to cost at least $75 million, and result in the development of support facilities--law offices, for example--that would generate millions more in commerce and tax revenue.
Anderson, Barich and officials of the Irvine Co. have said the idea to consider the Irvine site originated with Anderson--not the Irvine Co.--a point Anderson underscored in a letter sent last week to Santa Ana Mayor Dan Young.
"Consistent with my belief that competition for this facility is proper and in the best interest of the federal taxpayers," Anderson wrote, "I instructed my Washington staff to contact several public and private entities, including the Irvine Company, and let them know of the federal government's plan" to build a new courthouse.
"I have never lobbied for any specific site . . . and I don't intend to start now," Anderson added.
Barich on Thursday said Anderson's interest in examining other sites for the courthouse was motivated solely by the congressman's desire to keep down costs to the taxpayers by encouraging competition.
Nevertheless, Barich said, "The appearance of conflict is almost as bad as the conflict itself . . . I don't want to be put in a situation again where someone might raise that conflict issue."
In coming weeks, Barich said, Anderson is expected to take positions on other legislation, including a major reauthorization of federal highway aid programs, that could directly affect both Orange County and the Irvine Co. "I know it's going to come up again," he said.
First elected to Congress in 1968, Anderson is vice chairman and former chairman of the powerful House Committee on Public Works and Transportation. A public works subcommittee will make the final decision on the new courthouse site later this summer, following completion of a new GSA study. Anderson's district includes parts of Long Beach, Lakewood, Cerritos and Hawaiian Gardens.
Barich previously worked for Anderson for nearly eight years before going to the Irvine Co., which he joined in 1987 and left recently. He said he plans to return to California to work as a private consultant to companies that have dealings with state and local governments. His resignation is effective at the end of the week.
Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream said of Barich's resignation, "It certainly removes a possible cloud from the selection process" for the courthouse.
Irvine Co. Vice President Larry Thomas said Thursday he was saddened by Barich's resignation. "I think it's illustrative of our times," Thomas said, "where people are asked to go into public service and they get wrung through the wringer without justification, and end up suffering as a consequence."
To sweeten its bid for the courthouse, Santa Ana has offered to donate to the federal government a five-acre site on 5th Street, across from the Orange County Transportation Authority's regional terminal. The Irvine Co. has offered to donate land at the Irvine Spectrum office and industrial park.
Before those offers were tendered, the GSA had recommended construction of the courthouse on a 92-acre site in Laguna Niguel that already is owned by the federal government.