The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating nearly a dozen people for political money laundering in connection to campaign contributions to county Supervisor and state Senate candidate Janet Nguyen.
The FPPC has issued 11 subpoenas to donors who made contributions to the political committee Friends of Supervisor Janet Nguyen between 2011 and 2012, as part of an investigation involving political contributions made in the name of persons other than the true contributor, according to court records.
James Crawford, a defense attorney hired to represent all 11 donors, including Tony Lam, a former Westminster city councilman who became the first Vietnamese-American elected to public office, appeared before Judge David Hoffer Friday morning seeking a motion to quash the subpoenas for email, text message, phone and bank records between the donors and the political committee.
Nguyen, who was elected first district supervisor in 2008, is now locked in a tight race for the 34th State Senate seat, a race that leaves the fate of the state legislature in balance.
It’s a race that has not only attracted attention but big bucks.
Nguyen has received more than $2.5 million to her Senate campaign while her opponent, democrat Jose Solorio, has received more than $2.3 million.
And at least $1.5 million in independent expenditures has been spent in favor of Solorio and $950,000 in favor of Nguyen.
(Click here to download a compressed zip file of the campaign finance data.)
Crawford called the FPPC investigation an election season political tactic, citing Governor Jerry Brown’s support for Solorio.
“These are just hardworking Vietnamese people who made small contributions. These are unfounded accusations of political money laundering with no particularized allegations of wrongdoing against any individual,” Crawford said after the hearing.
With much of the details of the investigation sealed, Hoffer called on FPPC officials to bring forth more evidence before the next hearing, scheduled for Dec. 5.
“[Campaign contributions] are a First Amendment expression of values,” Crawford said. “It’s a fishing expedition. They have a right to privacy…and the government shouldn’t have unfettered access.”
Nguyen’s office did not return calls Friday morning for comment.
FPPC officials said the investigation into Nguyen’s committee began in 2013 but did not give further details, citing a policy not to comment on ongoing investigations.
Nguyen was fined $5,000 by the FPPC in 2007 for violations of TINCUP, a local ordinance limiting individual contributions, and the state Political Reform Act.
In 2013, after Voice of OC reported that Nguyen may have violated other state campaign finance laws for a vote on the Board of CalOptima, the county’s managed health care plan, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas issued a rare letter clearing Nguyen of any criminal conflict of interest violations in connection to her position.
The supervisor has drawn scrutiny for the number of unemployed people giving large contributions to her campaign. Between 2009 and 2012, the committee took contributions from nearly 60 unemployed donors.
Nguyen has defended the large numbers of unemployed people contributing to her campaign in the past by saying that her own grassroots background and the nature of her heavily immigrant district has required her to rely on smaller contributions, rather than deep-pocketed donors, for fundraising.
Lam, 78, is one of Nguyen’s close political advisers who has endorsed her Senate campaign. He retired from politics in 2002 after 3 terms on the Westminster City Council and is credited as a political pioneer who helped bridge a divide between an ever-growing Vietnamese immigrant population and other residents of Westminster.
Following his bow from politics, Lam moved into food service, managing his nephew’s tofu plant, trademarked as Dang-Vu Inc., and owning a local Lee’s Sandwiches franchise in Westminster. He is also known for starting a local restaurant, Vien Dong, with his wife.
Lam was also hired earlier this year at the rate of $1,650 a month as an ethnic community consultant to CalOptima, according to the agency’s press office. Nguyen has long been a force since joining the CalOptima board in 2011.
Lam himself contributed $1,700 to Nguyen’s between 2011 and 2012 and $500 to her Senate campaign.
Dang-Vu Inc. contributed $2,000 between 2011 and 2012, later returning $200 to remain under local contribution limits. Between 2013 and 2014 the company also gave $5,100 to Nguyen’s Senate campaign.
Five of the subpoenaed donors appear to have connections to Minh’s Meats, a Santa Ana-based wholesale poultry seller. Owners Minh and Elise Huynh each gave $1,800 to Nguyen’s campaign in 2011. In 2012, the company’s general manager, David Mercado, and his wife Mimi also gave $1,800 each.
Ying Fang, a woman living at the same address as Huynh, and listed on campaign forms as “not employed,” contributed $1,800 to Nguyen’s campaign in December 2012.
Troy Thang Nguyen, a self-employed web designer, gave $1,500 in 2011 and $1,300 in 2012, although he later returned $1,000 from the latter contribution.
The remaining four individuals, who are all listed on contribution forms as not employed, made contributions between November 2011 and February 2012:
Vinh P. Du, $1,500; Hoa Nguyen Nghiem, $1,800; Kiki Tran, $1,800; and An Phuc Nguyen, who gave two contributions of $1,600 and $1,800.
According to court documents, FPPC special investigator Lee Myers subpoenaed a broad range of records for each of the 11 donors, including:
- E-mails, text messages, facsimiles, telephone records/logs, and/or memorandum of communications referencing Friends of Supervisor Janet Nguyen for the period covering 04/22/11 through 4/19/12
- Any and all electronic and/or paper telephone records for all wireless and/or landline telephones belonging to or principally used by each donor
- Copies of address books and contact lists on wireless phones
- Bank statements
- Copies of deposit slips, and checks deposited into accounts
- Records of bank transfers and checks cashed against the account
Myers reasoned that such records “will show the true source of contributions made by [donors] to a political campaign committee, and any reimbursement of contributions that may have occurred.”
Crawford, the defense attorney, argued in his court motion that the FPPC subpoena for bank and personal records is vague and overly broad, infringe on constitutional rights to privacy, and that the agency has “failed to articulate how the review of such records could even prove such an allegation.”
“The FPPC simply cannot arbitrarily just request information without any alleged connection between such records and any ongoing investigation…the [subpoenas] are a fishing expedition and nothing more,” Crawford wrote.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Tony Lam’s birthday as 87. He is 78 years old. We regret the error.
Please contact Thy Vo directly at [email protected].