Welcome to Pombo Country 

Congressman Richard Pombo always sides with property owners. Sometimes that includes his own family.

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The Times also revealed that Pombo and his staff had not disclosed that his parents, Ralph and Onita, own a 289-acre ranch in the Altamont that they lease to wind-power companies and from which they receive royalties of more than $100,000 annually. Pombo denied that he was trying to make money for his parents by lobbying, arguing that he has been a wind-power supporter for years. He also told the newspaper that he never saw the letter to Norton, even though it bore his signature.

But Pombo failed to disclose something else that the Times article did not reveal. He personally could have profited from the wind-power contracts. A review of public records shows that Pombo has previously benefited from his parents' financial gains and that he maintains substantial monetary ties with them and his brothers.

In May 2001, after a series of lucrative real-estate transactions, Pombo's parents gave him and his four brothers a 10.4 percent stake each in their 205-acre ranch just outside Tracy, according to deed records. His parents kept the remaining stake for themselves. According to property records and the San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters, the congressman and his wife and children, his parents, and three of his brothers -- Ralph Jr., Rodger, and Raymond -- all live in separate homes on the ranch.

The property, rolling hills of treeless grasslands and cattle, sits right next to Interstate 580, a few miles north of the I-5 junction. The land is registered simultaneously in the name of a limited liability company, Pombo Ranch Estates, which Pombo's father listed with the secretary of state's office as a real-estate investment venture in April 2001. On his federal financial disclosure statements, Richard Pombo has reported himself as a partner of Pombo Ranch Estates since 2002, and lists the value of his interest in the company as being between $250,001 and $500,000. Federal law does not require him to be more specific.

The congressman and his father and at least two brothers, Rodger and Raymond, also are partners in R. Pombo Ranch II, a cattle ranching and feedlot business whose official address is on the same acreage. Richard Pombo has listed himself as a partner in the business since at least 1995. His 2004 financial statement put the value of his interest is between $100,001 and $250,000. Beyond his House salary, the money he makes from these two partnerships is the only income he reports on his federal disclosure forms.

But that's not the only money his family makes from him. Federal campaign finance statements reveal that both his wife, Annette, and his youngest brother, Randall, have collected nearly $500,000 in total from Pombo's campaign accounts since the beginning of 2001. The congressman has paid his wife $186,704 and Randall $311,489 in that time. Pombo reported that about one-fifth of the total was reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses. The balance was for "bookkeeping," "fund-raising," "consulting," and "clerical" work.

Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy originally pledged to schedule an interview with the congressman for this story, but then neither he, Pombo, nor Pombo's staff responded to any of more than a half-dozen subsequent phone and e-mail requests.

Tracy is proud of its native son, and inside City Hall, four of the five councilmembers, including Mayor Bilbrey, are Republicans who align themselves with him. Recently, however, things have not gone exactly as planned in Pombo Country. The city's rapid expansion -- from 18,428 in 1980 to about 80,000 today -- also changed its political mix, luring some Democrats who want to stop all that growth. They've been joined by old-timers finally fed up with all the traffic and air pollution the new commuters have caused. Today, Tracy has some of Northern California's worst traffic; just try driving to Yosemite on a hot Friday afternoon.

In 2000, Tracy residents rose up, defied their political leaders, and approved a slow-growth measure. "From 1991 to 2000, we built fifteen thousand units of housing in this town; we were operating under unlimited growth," said Mark Connolly, a Tracy attorney and author of the slow-growth measure. "Citizens -- after a while -- they realized they were sold a bill of goods. With all that growth, the roads didn't get any better and the schools became overcrowded."

The Tracy power structure opposed the measure and Connolly believes it will attempt to overturn it. But the pro-growth forces still have a major problem -- traffic, especially through the Altamont Pass. The morning and afternoon commutes to and from the East Bay are horrendous, choked with more than 140,000 cars and big rigs a day.

Connolly and Irene Sundberg, the lone Democrat on the Tracy City Council, both support a BART extension to Tracy or improvements to the Altamont Commuter Express train. A consortium of business leaders and labor groups, meanwhile, is working overtime to convince the state to widen I-205, which creates a bottleneck when motorists come off the Altamont and have to squeeze from eight lanes down to four. The bottleneck clogs traffic every weekday morning and afternoon.

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