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A billionaire who has become one of the largest campaign spenders on central OC elections is denying any intentional wrongdoing, as state authorities probe whether he violated campaign disclosure laws.

Campaign activities by Kieu Hoang, a Los Angeles County-based entrepreneur, are being investigated by the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), according to a letter the agency sent him earlier this month. Officials haven’t said what the investigation is about, other than it being centered on advertisements.

Hoang has put at least $50,000 towards a group that’s been funding attack ads against OC Supervisor Andrew Do and ads supporting his opponent, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido. He also has put $1.1 million into a group created to recall a majority of the Westminster City Council, according to Hoang’s attorney.

Hoang is the co-founder and shareholder of a China-based blood research company and current owner of a Napa winery. Credit: Provided for publication by Hoang's office

In an interview Wednesday, Hoang denied all intentional wrongdoing, calling any notion he violated state political campaign laws “all baloney.”

“I report everything,” Hoang told Voice of OC, adding that his attorney contacted the FPPC after Hoang received the letter.

Hoang’s attorney, Robert Blackmon, said while the letter contains little information, he believes the FPPC inquiry might be related to Hoang’s regular broadcasting of videos that touch on politics, through Facebook Live.

“If he says ‘I think so-and-so is a great candidate,’ that’s considered a non-monetary contribution to the election of that person,” Blackmon said in an interview. He added that Hoang – because he’s a major donor – would be required under state law to file a report detailing a non-monetary contribution, and specify that the message was not done in coordination with candidates’ political campaigns.

Blackmon said he and Hoang are working to clarify with the FPPC all non-monetary contributions he may have made to campaigns.

Over the last year, Hoang has emerged as a key player in local politics in Orange County’s Little Saigon, starting with his support for recall efforts against the Westminster City Council majority: Mayor Tri Ta and Council members Kimberly Ho and Charlie Nguyen.

From left: Westminster Mayor Tri Ta, Councilwoman Kimberly Ho and Councilman Charlie Nguyen at a March 2019 City Council meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

To assist the recall team, known as Westminster United, Hoang hired signature-gatherers and enlisted the services of prominent Republican political consultant Dave Gilliard.

Gilliard was involved in the successful 2003 recall of former Gov. Gray Davis, and has also worked in recent years as a leading campaign consultant to former state Sen. Janet Nguyen.

Hoang has donated to Nguyen’s campaign for State Assembly over the last year, and publicly spoke in support of her campaign through interviews and public news releases.

Hoang was informed in a Feb. 12 letter that state authorities had opened an investigation into his campaign activities.

“The Enforcement Division of the Fair Political Practices Commission has commenced a commission-initiated investigation regarding your potential violations of the campaign finance and advertisement disclaimer provisions of the Political Reform Act,” the agency wrote its letter.

“At this time, we have not made any determination about the possible violations,” it added.

Hoang later posted the letter to his Facebook page.

According to the FPPC website, the investigation centers on advertising, in what the agency calls “AdWatch.”

While the FPPC initiates investigations on its own less than half of the time, “it’s relatively frequent and not uncommon,” said commission spokesman Jay Wierenga.

Most cases opened by the state stem from complaints and referrals. Last year, out of the 2,694 complaints and referrals the FPPC received, officials opened 1,820 cases and closed 1,465 cases.

Under California’s Political Reform Act, political spending committees are required to place disclaimers on campaign advertisements that identify the committee that paid for or authorized the communication.

Under the “AdWatch” program, which was created to address possible violations of the law more quickly, members of the public can notify FPPC officials about potential violations of political campaign advertising laws by submitting photos or videos of the forms of advertising they believe might be breaking the law.

Though the FPPC in their letter to Hoang said the investigation was “commission-initiated.”

“The FPPC AdWATCH program allows people to upload pictures and/or video,” said FPPC Communications Director Jay Wierenga.

He added: “Anything uploaded that does not also contain the request for a sworn complaint and is determined by FPPC Enforcement to be worthy of looking into to see if there was/is improper or lack of disclosure is something that then would be considered and called ‘commission-initiated’, since there was no complaint involved.”

The Westminster recall movement has exposed a fracture in Little Saigon between those who agree that Ho, Nguyen and Ta are guilty of numerous ethical violations on the City Council — ranging from trading nepotism favors to consolidating undue influence over City Hall — and those who see Hoang as an outsider trying to use money to influence local politics.

Members of the public at a September, 2019 Westminster City Council meeting.

The recall movements have so far been marked by robocalls to residents, allegations of foreign interference by the Vietnamese government, and burned down campaign signs.

Hoang has so far given around $1.1 million to Westminster United, Blackmon said. 

“He put in so much money,” said Lan Quoc Nguyen, an attorney whose legal services were enlisted by the majority faction to oppose the recall effort, in a phone interview Wednesday. “Surely, this is Kieu Hoang’s recall — not the residents’.”

Hoang said he’s committed to removing corruption and undue influence by certain politicians over Little Saigon.

“After I recall the Westminster majority, I will recall others,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

“I have never met Mr. Hoang. I have never spoken to him,” Ta said. “In any City, regardless of the good work of the City Council and City staff, there are always a number of residents, for whatever reasons, who are unhappy with their representatives. It’s unavoidable.”

Hoang’s political contributions and activism seem to vary across both political parties.

He’s spent money in support of local Democrats like Pulido, and announced his support for Democratic Congressional incumbent Harley Rouda this year. Hoang also has contributed to former State Senator Janet Nguyen, who is running this March 3 against fellow Republican Tyler Diep for the 72nd State Assembly seat. According to state campaign finance records, Hoang donated to the election campaigns of former Republican State Assemblyman Van Tran from 2004 to 2008.

This year, Hoang is a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump.

Westminster United organizer David Johnson defends Hoang’s activism.

He said complaints from Westminster’s council majority and their allies in Little Saigon that Hoang is from out of town are hypocritical and unfair.

Johnson notes that Mayor Ta “accepts campaign donations from out of town all the time” and “Lan (Quoc) Nguyen, their spokesperson, feeding you all this hypocrisy, doesn’t live in Westminster either.” 

Nguyen is a resident of Garden Grove.

Johnson added that “long before anyone else,” Hoang was at once a donor to allies of the council majority, like Van Tran — one of the majority faction’s legal advisors throughout the current recall process — when he was a member of the State Assembly.

Hoang has voiced public support for current Councilman Tai Do — a high-profile critic of the majority who’s running to replace Mayor Ta in the recall election — as well as fellow candidates Jamison Power and Michael Dao. 

Westminster Councilman Tai Do. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Hoang has announced support for a number of political candidates from both parties running for office in the March primaries, whose districts encompass Little Saigon.

Among them: Nguyen, a former state senator and current candidate for the 72nd State Assembly District; Pulido, the Santa Ana mayor and candidate for 1st District Orange County supervisor; and Harley Rouda, who’s running for re-election to the 48th Congressional District.

Westminster voters will decide in the special recall election whether Ho, Nguyen and Ta should stay in office or be replaced. The election is slated for April 7.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that U.S. 49th District Congressional Rep. Harley Rouda received campaign money from Kieu Hoang. He did not. Voice of OC regrets the error.

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

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