A dispute has erupted between Orange County campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle, Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu and hotelier William O'Connell over whether O'Connell made $3,400 in illegal contributions to Sidhu's 2010 supervisorial campaign.
Three partnerships organized by O'Connell gave Sidhu a combined $5,100 in September 2010, according to campaign finance documents. The limit at the time for any individual — or a business controlled by that individual — was $1,700.
O'Connell said that among other reasons he had a minority stake in each of the three partnerships, so all of his donations were legal. "These donations were totally legal, there's nothing wrong with what I did or what Harry did," O'Connell said this week.
Grindle, who wrote the campaign finance law known as Time is Now, Clean Up Politics (TINCUP), isn't buying it. She argues that O'Connell was controlling the campaign donations, which made any amount he gave beyond $1,700 illegal under the county law.
"I believe that he [Sidhu] has violated the ordinance, and I will pursue getting the money refunded," Grindle said. "I'm not going to let this go."
The donations were brought to Grindle's attention by Voice of OC as the Anaheim City Council was considering granting a $158-million subsidy to another partnership controlled by O'Connell and Ajesh Patel to build two four-star hotels at the city's GardenWalk center.
The Council approved the subsidy for the partnership, GardenWalk Hotel I, last week by a 3-2 vote, with Sidhu voting for approval.
O'Connell has acknowledged that he personally wrote the three checks on behalf of the partnerships — Anaheim Park Place Inn, Best Western Pavilions and Stovall's Inn. When first asked why he wrote checks from three entities rather than from one, he said it was for tax purposes.
"The ordinance doesn't say anything about who is writing the checks," O'Connell said in an interview this week.
Yet the fact that O'Connell himself wrote the checks is the crux of Grindle's argument. She said that is strong evidence that O'Connell controlled the contributions. "He [O'Connell] told you he signed all three checks. That's a pretty damning statement," Grindle said.
The back-and-forth statements between Grindle and O'Connell started last week when Grindle emailed Sidhu demanding that he refund the $3,400 to O'Connell. Sidhu resisted and wrote back that O'Connell's lawyer determined the contributions were legal.
Grindle emailed Sidhu again Thursday citing the ordinance and repeating her demand for a refund.
This isn't the first time Sidhu has accepted illegal campaign cash.
Previous partnerships organized by Patel and O'Connell, including GardenWalk Hotel I and Orangewood, gave Sidhu a combined $5,100 in 2009, campaign finance documents show. Sidhu refunded $3,400 of that money after Grindle discovered the contributions.
Sidhu refunded another $3,400 to companies owned by Narendra and Anita Gupta during his supervisor race, which he lost to Supervisor Shawn Nelson.
Grindle has vowed that she will file a complaint with the district attorney's office if Sidhu doesn't refund the money, a move that she hopes will generate more news coverage. She has said she is not confident that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas will launch a probe into the issues.
"You need to understand that in this county there is no prosecution of campaign violations because that son-of-a-bitch DA Tony Rackauckas made statements in his campaign that he would send all campaign violations to the [Fair Political Practices Commission]," Grindle said.
However, Grindle said, the FPPC doesn't enforce local campaign finance laws, so such a policy is pointless.
Susan Kang Schroeder, Rackauckas' chief of staff, said Grindle has it in for Rackauckas, but she couldn't point to any specific violations of campaign laws that Rackauckas has prosecuted.
"She [Grindle] is somebody who, you know, has a political vendetta against the district attorney, was a maximum donor to the DA's competitor and says things that aren't true," Schroeder said.