Embattled Contra Costa Assessor at Center of Suspicious Oregon Land Deal

Contra Costa County Assessor Gus Kramer is no stranger to unsavory allegations. But this story chronicled by Bay Area New Group really takes the cake.

About a year ago, Kendall Orr called an Oregon water company to pay the bill on the house she had given her daughter, as she regularly did. She was shocked to hear the clerk’s response.

“The person told me, ‘You can’t pay the bill because the house doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to a Gus Kramer’,” Orr said.

The Contra Costa County assessor, who briefly was married to Orr’s sister decades ago, had somehow wound up with control over her former 8.5-acre property in Bend. It was the start of yet another bizarre land deal involving Kramer, a man with a history of questionable property transfers.

Between 2005 and 2008, Kramer — the elected official who sets assessed property values in the East Bay county — was listed on at least 18 deeds that show real estate transactions listed as gifts without transfer taxes paid.

In 2010, following an investigation by this news organization, Kramer filed 33 amendments to his ethics forms, detailing land ownership, his involvement in an East County development, and loans he had made that he had not previously made public as required by state law. Contra Costa prosecutors began investigating Kramer’s acquisitions, but in 2011 former District Attorney Mark Peterson ended it in an action two prosecutors said was premature, coming before their probe was completed.

The latest case is one of Kramer’s most convoluted and curious yet. After acquiring control of the Oregon home, Kramer, acting as a trustee for Orr’s daughter Veronika Farago, sold the property for $160,000 — less than half its estimated market value — to his personal attorney. Documents indicate he then issued a loan to his lawyer, who used the property as collateral.

— Bay Area News Group

Kramer paints a different picture of the transaction which obviously casts him in a much better light. He says he became Farago’s trustee as a favor to her because she was having a “crisis” and unwittingly ended up in the middle of a “blood feud” between her and her mother. He says he later sold the property below market value to clear the title and consolidate debt on the house with plans to give it back.

Orr now says she never would have transferred the property to her daughter if she had known Kramer was involved. She has been begging for him to return the property to her to no avail.

“Kendall tried to tell me her story of woe and I told her I’m not getting into a dispute between her and her daughter” said Kramer, as reported by Bay Area News Group.

But the story gets even more convoluted.

On May 19, Farago was arrested on criminal charges. Three months later, with Farago in serious legal trouble, Kramer came up with a plan.

On Aug. 16, Traci Olson, a Bend aesthetician who was also listed on the trust with Kramer, received a call from him saying they needed to sell the property quickly. Olson had agreed to be named as a trustee as a favor to Farago, her former college friend. She said she never met Kramer.

“He was kind of pushy and it was a ‘Quick, let’s get this done’ type deal,” Olson said in a phone interview.

“When I go to sign the papers, I just wanted to make sure that the money would go to Veronika and they assured me Gus would take care of that,” she said.

The deed was recorded on Aug. 23, and Kramer’s personal attorney Bruce Zelis was the new owner. The week before, Zelis represented Kramer at a Contra Costa Board of Supervisors meeting where the assessor was censured for behavior “inappropriate and unbecoming of an elected County official” toward two female subordinates in his department.

— Bay Area News Group

That set off alarm bells for a UC Berkeley law professor that the publication spoke to.

“(As a trustee) you are normally selling to an unrelated third party not to someone known to the trustee. That becomes suspicious,” said Eric Rakowski. “Why is he lending his attorney money and possibly selling his property in a sweetheart deal?”

Kramer says the house was sold to his attorney to “create an insurable title,” but Assessor Scot Langton says his office has no record of the agreement that purportedly explains that.

Furthermore, a Richmond trust attorney that also spoke to Bay Area News Group is puzzled by Kramer’s “insurable title” explanation for the below-market sale.

“I don’t get it. I just don’t get what he’s saying. It strikes me it would do just the opposite.”

You can read more about Gus Kramer’s bizarre Oregon land deal at the Mercury News. For further background on some of the controversies involving Gus Kramer, see our County News coverage from this year:

Sexual Harassment Scandal Rocks Contra Costa County Assessor’s Office

Contra Costa Assessor Censured by County Supervisors