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Fresno Chamber Chief Arrested on Drug Charge

Stebbins Dean was at a conference in Florida when he allegedly tried to buy crack cocaine.

July 23, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — As chamber of commerce executives go, Stebbins Dean hasn't had an easy job.

For more than a decade, he has tried to burnish this city's lackluster image, proclaiming its oft-hidden virtues to doubting CEOs around the state and country.

Each headline seemed to add insult to his cause: Fresno -- the arson capital of the West. Fresno -- the nation's No. 2 city for auto theft. Fresno -- America's worst smog.

On Tuesday, the city's fervent huckster became the subject of his own tarnished headline. While on a trip to Naples, Fla., last weekend to share ideas with a national gathering of chamber of commerce heads, Dean was arrested and charged with trying to buy crack cocaine from an undercover police officer.

Local business leaders now say the city's image builder, the man who helped launch the slogan "Fresno: Smile When You Say That!," has so badly stained his own image that he must step down for the greater good. After the recent foibles of a local state assemblyman -- who told Fresno police that he was roaming the red light district at night because he got lost on his way to the farm bureau -- this city seems braced for a whole new round of jokes at its expense.

"There are some mistakes where you can pick up the pieces and move on without too much damage," said Larry Willey, a past chairman of the chamber of commerce board who owns a tile company here. "This may be one of those crooked things that you can't make straight."

The arrest report paints a portrait at odds with the middle-aged and balding Dean, a man regarded by his peers as a "very steady Eddie." Naples police say they encountered Dean loitering in a drug-infested neighborhood four miles north of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the site of the Chamber Executives Leadership Forum.

When an undercover detective asked the 50-year-old Dean what he wanted, the chamber head allegedly said he was looking to buy some "80" -- street slang for $80 worth of crack cocaine. After buying three pieces of crack that turned out to be fake, Dean was arrested and charged with a felony.

Dean, who is on administrative leave from his job, says it was all a misunderstanding. His words sounded garbled to the undercover officer. He said he told the officer he needed a "cab" and not "crack." He said he has never used illegal drugs and wasn't trying to make a purchase last Saturday night.

"People that know me know that I don't do drugs," Dean told the Fresno Bee. "I can't believe this. I'm totally emotionally upset."

But court records show that only last November Dean was arrested in Fresno and charged with two counts of drunk driving and one count of possessing a drug pipe. After pleading no contest to one DUI count, he was placed on probation for three years.

Local business leaders say the bad publicity over this new arrest only moves the city further away from its mission to cut into a jobless rate that hovers between 12% and 15%, depending on the season.

"For a long time, our quality of leadership in Fresno has left something to be desired," said Gary Janzen, an advertising company executive. "This arrest only underscores how serious a leadership problem we have.

"There are a lot of progressive things going on here to deal with unemployment and other problems. But they tend not to get heard when our leaders keep messing up."

Larry Johanson, the current chairman of the chamber board, said he believes the fallout from Dean's arrest won't be long-lived. "The chamber doesn't center around one person. The chamber is 1,900 businesses and 24 board members and 16 committees that are working on a multitude of important projects," he said.

"Stebbins has done a lot of good work but we go on. Nothing about that larger mission is going to change."

Dean became the chief executive of the Fresno Chamber in 1991, after serving in the same post in Oceanside. He has been a strong advocate for Fresno, sometimes even giving a tongue-lashing to out-of-town newspaper reporters whose stories have portrayed Fresno in a less-than-flattering light.

More than 100 chamber heads from across the country were gathered at the national conference in Naples, which began on Sunday and ended Tuesday. According to police, Dean was booked into Collier County Jail about 11 p.m. Saturday. He posted a $2,500 bond and was released early Sunday morning.

Police said that after Dean approached an undercover officer looking for some "80," the chamber chief pulled out his wallet and flashed cash. The officer then showed Dean three pieces of fake crack cocaine, and the two began to haggle over a price. Police said Dean paid $42 and then he took the fake drugs and walked away. As backup officers arrived to arrest him, police said, Dean threw the fake drugs into a pile of garbage. The pieces were never found.

Dean told the Bee that he simply was walking in downtown Naples when he headed north and got lost in a shabby neighborhood. "I had no idea where I was," he said. "I was just looking for a way home."

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