The Orange County district attorney has opened an inquiry into whether Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu accepted $3,400 in illegal campaign contributions from a hotelier during Sidhu's 2010 campaign for Orange County supervisor, DA Chief of Staff Susan Schroeder wrote in an email this week.
The probe comes after county watchdog Shirley Grindle retracted her demand that Sidhu refund the cash because she had no way to prove that the hotelier, William O'Connell, had control of the contributions. County law at the time limited to $1,700 a combination of a person's contributions and any made by businesses that person controls.
In 2010, three partnerships connected to O'Connell — Anaheim Park Place Inn, Best Western Pavilions and Stovall's Inn — gave $5,100 to Sidhu's supervisorial campaign. At least two contributions totaling $3,400 would have exceeded the limit had O'Connell been behind the contributions, Grindle argues.
The contributions first came into question when the City Council voted 3-2 to grant a $158-million tax subsidy to a development partnership involving O'Connell. Sidhu voted in favor of the subsidy, intended to help the developer attract financing to build two four-star hotels at the GardenWalk center.
O'Connell acknowledged to a Voice of OC reporter last month that he personally wrote the checks to Sidhu's campaign. He said he had made the contributions under the different partnerships for tax purposes.
That acknowledgment was key to Grindle's refund demand, because it showed that O'Connell was in control of the contributions, she said.
But O'Connell says Sidhu has no reason to make the refund. Sidhu told Grindle that O'Connell's son, William O'Connell Jr., controls Anaheim Park Place Inn and the Stovall family controls Stovall's Inn.
O'Connell said he wrote the check on behalf of the Stovall partnership, in which he has a stake, but did not control the contribution, according to Grindle.
Yet O'Connell's office is at the Best Western Plus Stovall's Inn, which is the hotel located at the address shown in the California secretary of state's business database for the Stovall's Inn partnership. He is also shown as the agent for processing.
Sidhu did not return a phone call seeking comment. O'Connell declined to answer any questions on the matter.
Schroeder said the DA's office held a "powwow" after the office received an emailed query from Voice of OC about the contributions. DA officials decided the contributions were worth investigating, Schroeder said.
Grindle has said the DA's office is unwilling to enforce local campaign finance laws.
Schroeder has countered that Tony Rackuackas' office has investigated numerous complaints about campaign finance violations, but in most cases, the evidence hasn't warranted prosecution. "In the cases we've observed and the cases from the previous administration, we haven't found a case that we can prove," Schroeder said.
Schroeder also contends that Grindle has other motives for criticizing Rackuackas. Grindle had unfettered access to the offices of Rackauckas' predecessor, Michael Capizzi, but when Rackuackas took over, that access ended.
Schroeder argued that Grindle, who wrote the county's campaign finance ordinance, doesn't know the law well enough and doesn't understand what is required to prosecute.
"You have to know Shirley Grindle and her 50 cats," Schroeder said. "She plays favorites. You know how they say a little bit of knowledge is dangerous? Just because you wrote the law, it doesn't mean you know how to prosecute cases."
Grindle says such comments by Schroeder obscure the real issue, which is that only the DA has the power to discover the truth in these cases.
"I probably know the TINCUP ordinance better than her and Tony put together, but that's not the problem. I'm not a detective, I don't have [power to] subpoena," Grindle said.
The DA's office must call O'Connell for a deposition in order to get a conviction, she said. "Investigate means gathering proof."
The DA's office previously investigated Sidhu amid complaints that Sidhu wasn't living in the district where he was running for county supervisor, Schroeder said.
"We did investigate that quite thoroughly, and every time we would go out there, Harry would be in his bathrobe in his house," Schroeder said. "We're not shy about reviewing complaints about anyone."