Countywide Interest Grows in Westminster City Council Recalls

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Mayor Tri Ta and Councilman Charlie Nguyen hold a press conference in regard to alleged fraudulent conduct by paid signature collectors from recall advocate, Westminster United.

Efforts to unseat the Westminster City Council majority are one step closer to an election, amid a recall movement marked by robocalls to residents, political support from a Forbes-listed billionaire, and interest from elected officials and political groups across Orange County.

The recall team targeting majority faction Councilmembers Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta has been approved by City Clerk Christine Cordon to canvass the city and gather signatures on their petitions.

Of the city’s registered voter population, 8,736 people must sign the petitions by Dec. 6. If the recall team — led by political group Westminster United — meets that goal, voters in an election will decide if the majority faction will stay in office or be replaced.

The other recall team, which seeks to unseat minority faction Councilmembers Sergio Contreras and Tai Do, is still in the process of getting their petitions approved with the city.

“We’re still in this back and forth review period. They do not have an approved petition at this point,” said Cordon, whose office is tasked with handling the paperwork that comes with the effort to unseat a sitting council member.

In Westminster’s case, all five council members are looking at a possible removal.

“I don’t know of any time an entire Council has been up for recall,” said Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller, a local government expert. “But I can tell you that most recalls fail for a lack of signatures.”

David Johnson, a city commissioner who helped organize Westminster United, said over the phone his group has around 200 volunteers and has already gathered around 2,000 signatures for their petitions. They still have around 100 days to gather more.

It’s unclear if the recall team targeting the minority faction is under the leadership of any political group. And no campaign finance committee related to the effort has registered with the city, according to Cordon.

Westminster United and other critics of the majority faction say Ho, Nguyen and Ta have used their office for wrongdoing, accusing them of everything from corruption and ethical violations to power-consolidation and nepotism.

Nguyen and Ta have called the recall efforts against them “unfortunate,” and that proponents for their removal are “misled” by Tai Do, who over this year has become one of their most vocal critics, frequently engaging them in public back-and-forths that sometimes push Council meetings toward midnight.

Nguyen and Ta in a Wednesday, Aug. 28 news conference accused Westminster United of tricking residents into signing the petitions with “bait-and-switch” misrepresentation tactics.

The council members showed a video of one signature-gatherer stationed outside a Walmart at Beach Blvd and Trask Ave, standing at a table with a sign reading “Lower rent in California – sign here.”

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Van Tran, the legal counsel to Mayor Tri Ta and Councilman Charlie Nguyen, points at photographic evidence of a signature collector standing outside of a Wal-Mart in Westminister.

Nguyen and Ta’s legal counsel, Van Tran, said the video is evidence that Westminster United is gathering signatures under false pretenses because the man in the video was also collecting signatures for Westminster United’s effort.

“Many of the folks signing these forms are senior citizens, and English is not their first language,” Tran said, adding that “a lot of these signature collectors just blow over the facts.”

Johnson over the phone said the signature-gatherer in question “is not a resident of Westminster,” and that the person was contracted by a different organization outside Westminster United to collect signatures for their effort.

“He comes from out of town,” Johnson said, adding that he was also contracted by a different group “unrelated to any of us” to collect signatures on a state initiative on rent control. “He is allowed to have both at his table.”

Ta at the press conference said he and his team are continuing to collect evidence on alleged wrongdoing by the recall team seeking to unseat him.

Tran said their team is considering filing a complaint “with both the local DA Office as well as with the State Attorney General’s Office.”

Johnson said Westminster United has not been contacted by the Orange County District Attorney’s office and called all accusations of wrongdoing “outrageous lies.”

There’s also an issue of race, according to Tran, amid Westminster United’s effort to unseat Ho, Nguyen and Ta, who are all Vietnamese.

Tran said while “it’s more complicated” than the idea that the recall has pitted the Vietnamese community against the non-Vietnamese community, “if you look at the demographics and facts and circumstances, you can put two and two together for yourself.”

Johnson maintains Westminster United is not motivated by race, and that the group’s volunteers consist of Asian American, Latino and white people.

Nguyen said the recall efforts against him and his allies are nothing more than an attempt by a “small group” of “disgruntled political opponents who did not get their way” to take control of the City Council.

As the recall efforts proceed, interest from outside Orange County has grown with the involvement of the statewide political group California Republicans Assembly — which is supporting the Council majority — and Westminster United supporter Kieu Hoang, a billionaire who Forbes business magazine lists as living in Los Angeles county.

Meanwhile, a series of robocalls from city and county officials, as well as local and state political groups, are ringing residents’ phones and urging them to choose sides.

One robocall from Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do urged residents in Vietnamese not to sign the petitions against Ho, Nguyen and Ta. Andrew Do, who will be challenged by Contreras in his 2020 reelection bid, did not respond to repeated phone and text messages seeking comment.

The Republican Party of Orange County has also gotten involved.

Chairman Fred Whitaker said in a text message the party’s Central Committee passed a resolution on Aug. 19 “to affirmatively oppose the recall of our Republican majority on the Westminster Council.”

The Central Committee consists of elected city and state officials across Orange County’s seven State Assembly districts.

Whitaker said they are also planning on sending out a robocall.

Other robocalls supporting the majority come from Ryan Billings, a city commissioner and employee of Republican State Assemblyman Tyler Diep’s office, and the California Republican Assembly, a statewide political group aimed at getting Republicans elected to the state legislature.

Diep — who also served on the Westminster City Council until his election to the State Assembly in 2018 — in a statement called the recall efforts “a big distraction.”

“Instead of addressing issues like homelessnesses and housing affordability, our city leaders are consumed with their political survival for the next 100 days.”

One robocall from Westminster United features the voice of Tai Do endorsing their efforts to unseat Ho, Nguyen and Ta. Johnson said the group expects to send out three others.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese American billionaire Kieu Hoang has joined Westminster United’s movement, enlisting the services of political consultant Dave Gilliard to advise the recall team.

Hoang is the vice chairman and shareholder of a Chinese blood research company known as Shanghai RAAS Blood Products, listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, according to Forbes. He also owns a winery in Napa.

His net worth was around $2.8 billion as of 2018.

Hoang did not return requests for comment.

“My client Kieu Hoang is committed to fighting corruption and mismanagement and is strongly supporting the recall campaign being conducted by the citizens’ group Westminster United,” said Gilliard in a statement.

Gilliard’s past clients include former Republican State Senator Janet Nguyen, former county District Attorney Tony Rauckakas, and former Republican Congressman Ed Royce. Gilliard also worked on the successful recall of California Governor Gray Davis in 2003.

More recently, Gilliard was a campaign consultant for three of 2018’s Orange County Republican Congressional candidates — Diane Harkey, Mimi Walters and Young Kim – who all lost to their Democratic opponents in November.

When asked about the nature of his consulting for Westminster United, Gilliard described it as “strategy and tactics relative to a signature-gathering campaign.”

“Serving recall papers is easy,” Smoller said. “Gathering signatures is hard.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.