After a weeks-long dispute over whether hotelier William O'Connell made $3,400 in illegal campaign donations to Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu, Orange County watchdog Shirley Grindle has retracted her demand that Sidhu refund the money.
Grindle says she has no way to prove that O'Connell was behind $5,100 in contributions made under partnerships connected to O'Connell. If he did make them, $3,400 of the campaign donations would be over the limit of $1,700 in effect at the time.
The campaign donations first came into question when the City Council voted to award a $158-million tax subsidy to a development partnership involving O'Connell. The developer was granted the subsidy to help it build two four-star hotels at the GardenWalk mall.
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 2010 campaign for county supervisor.
In tallying campaign contributions, the county campaign finance law combines contributions by a person and any businesses controlled by that person. Grindle, who authored the law, argued that because O'Connell made the contributions under the partnerships, the donations exceeded the limit by $3,400.
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 acknowledgement was key to Grindle's refund demand because it showed that O'Connell was behind the contributions, she said.
Yet O'Connell argues that Sidhu has no reason to make the refund. He says Anaheim Park Place Inn is controlled by his son, William O'Connell Jr., and Stovall's Inn is controlled by the Stovall family, not O'Connell, Grindle said.
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.
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.
O'Connell and Sidhu did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"I think that's a far stretch, but I can't prove anything," Grindle said. "I personally feel that we're not getting the whole truth."
Grindle has found at least two other instances when Sidhu has taken illegal campaign donations.
In 2010, Grindle identified another $3,400 in illegal donations given the previous year by partnerships involving O'Connell and Ajesh Patel, the other partner benefiting from the hotel tax subsidy. Grindle notified Sidhu, warning him that if it happened again she would notify the news media. Sidhu returned those funds.
Sidhu had to refund another $3,400 to companies owned by Narendra and Anita Gupta during Sidhu's campaign for county supervisor, which he lost to Supervisor Shawn Nelson.
The battle between O'Connell, Grindle and Sidhu illustrates a startling lack of campaign finance oversight in Orange County, Grindle said. Other large cities and counties have official enforcement bodies, such as an ethics commission, charged with preventing conflicts of interest and meticulously watching campaign contributions, she says.
In Orange County, the only agency with the power to pursue campaign finance violations is the district attorney's office. Grindle has said repeatedly that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has shown a persistent unwillingness to prosecute local campaign finance violations.
This leaves the 77-year-old Grindle as a one-woman enforcer with no official authority. She can't subpoena anyone or any record. She has no power to prosecute possible offenses.
When Grindle finds that candidates have taken donations over the limit, the candidates usually make refunds. In rare instances, however, they don't, as in the case of the Sidhu donations. She says there is nothing more she can do.
Officials with the DA's office could not be reached for comment Monday, but in the past, Susan Schroeder, Rackauckas' chief of staff, has said that the office is willing to prosecute campaign finance law violations if the evidence warrants it.
She could not, however, cite any specific violations that Rackauckas has prosecuted.