An Orange County Superior Court Judge has granted state subpoenas for the bank, phone and email records of 11 donors to State Senator Janet Nguyen, saying, "there is good cause" to examine those as part of a political money laundering investigation.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating donors and the campaign committee, "Friends of Supervisor Janet Nguyens 2012." Nguyen was sworn into the State Senate Monday after handily winning the November election.
At a hearing Friday afternoon, Judge David Hoffer denied a motion by James Crawford, the attorney representing all 11 individuals, to quash the subpoenas, and ordered Crawford to turn over the records to the FPPC by Jan. 16.
Crawford said he would be consulting with his 11 clients over the weekend and would likely advise them to appeal the judge’s decision.
Although the first of the subpoenas were issued in late July, news of the FPPC investigation, ongoing since 2012, first became public after Crawford filed court action in September, arguing the subpoenas are an untoward invasion of privacy and violate his clients’ right to political expression without any proof of illegal activity.
“I’ve seen nothing to show a causal connection…to my clients other than that they live in Orange County and are Vietnamese. There are almost racial overtones about it,” Crawford told the judge.
But Hoffer said the subpoenas are relevant and material to the FPPC’s investigation, and upheld the state’s interest in enforcing campaign finance law.
“There is a compelling state interest and those rights [to personal privacy] need to give way to this particular set of subpoenas,” Hoffer said.
While upholding the subpoenas, Hoffer told Crawford that his clients could still invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination later on.
Although much of the state’s evidence is under seal, the additional information provided to the court to justify the subpoenas has provided a rare glimpse into an investigation that has been ongoing since 2013.
FPPC investigators have alleged that Nguyen’s campaign records show patterns of contributions consistent with money laundering schemes, citing the presence of common red flags in the committee’s campaign records: individuals reporting the same home address and employer, misreported addresses, occupation and employer information; and unemployed donors giving significant amounts of money.
They also claim in court documents that six donors have admitted to receiving illegal reimbursements, and that investigators have since gathered additional evidence that two more donors were reimbursed.
Crawford said the 11 clients he represents had not been reimbursed. It's unclear from the FPPC documents whether the eight reimbursed donors are his clients.
Galena West, an attorney for the FPPC, said the bank and phone records are key to establishing evidence of money laundering.
“Money laundering happens behind closed doors...communications that show who the true source of money are very relevant,” West said. “When you have $1,500 going in and $1,500 going out, and phone numbers called the day before and after, [the records] are very relevant."
According to a Voice of OC analysis, more than 60 unemployed donors gave to Nguyen between 2009 and 2012.
Nguyen has defended her fundraising strategy 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 establishment donors, for fundraising.
Among the subpoenaed donors is Tony Lam, the 78-year-old Little Saigon trailblazer known for becoming the first Vietnamese-American elected to public office in 1992, when he was elected to the Westminster city council. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/16/us/a-vietnamese-american-becomes-a-political-first.html
Since retiring from elected office in 2002, Lam has played a quieter role in local politics as an adviser to Nguyen, who appointed him to the county Planning Commission from 2007 to 2011 and the Airport Commission from 2011 to April 2014. He has also worked for CalOptima as a contract ethnic community consultant.
Lam also has ties to the food service industry and helps manage both his nephew’s tofu company and a Westminster branch of the successful Lee’s Sandwiches restaurant chain.
Between 2011 and 2012, Lam gave $1,700 to the Friends of Supervisor Janet Nguyen committee. He also gave $500 to her Senate campaign.
His nephew’s tofu company, 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.
An additional incorporation owned by his nephew’s wife, DTJA, Inc., gave $400 in 2012.
Five of the subpoenaed donors appear to have connections to Minh’s Meats, a Santa Ana-based wholesale poultry seller. Owner Minh Huynh, his wife Ying Fang and a 26-year old relative 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.
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 because it put him over the limit.
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 Phuoc Nguyen, who gave two contributions of $1,600 and $1,800.
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