On the June 6 primary ballot, Michelle Steel is identified as a deputy to a member of the powerful tax board on which she is seeking a seat. It is a job title that political analysts say is likely to help her win votes.
But Steel held the job for only three months. In the meantime, the man she replaced was demoted, took a salary cut, and found a second job: working for the Steel campaign. Soon after the state approved the ballot language, Steel resigned and her replacement returned to his former job.
As a member of the obscure Board of Equalization, which pays $131,000 a year, Steel would be one of five commissioners overseeing more than $40 billion in tax collections for the state, routinely presiding over cases involving multinational companies contesting millions of dollars in payments.
"It's outrageous," said Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta), Steel's opponent in the June primary election for a board district that encompasses five counties south and east of Los Angeles. He accused Steel of "paying the guy who already had that job so she could look better on the ballot.... I've never heard of anything like that going on before."
Steel hopes to succeed Claude Parrish, a leading Republican candidate for state treasurer and a close political ally of her husband, Shawn Steel, a former state GOP chairman.
State personnel records show that Parrish demoted Marcus Frishman, his deputy of eight years, on Dec. 30. Parrish then moved Steel, whose official campaign biography shows little accounting experience, into the job. She filed her campaign papers in mid-March with the job title of "Equalization Boardmember's Deputy." On March 31, personnel records show, she resigned.
During those three months, Frishman worked as an assistant to Parrish. According to the state, his monthly salary was reduced from $9,223 to $6,394. He was hired, for an undisclosed amount, to work for Steel's campaign. Frishman was reinstated as deputy April 1, with a $91 monthly raise over the higher salary.
Steel declined to comment. Parrish did not return multiple phone calls placed over two weeks. Frishman would say only that his job was switched while he was on vacation before referring questions to the board's personnel division, which also declined to comment.
Robert Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said he had never heard of a candidate taking a top job in a state agency during filing season, using the title as ballot language, and then resigning the post. He said the move was a way for Parrish to help Steel's campaign "without spending any money other than taxpayer money."
He said the job title listed alongside Steel's name on the ballot could be extremely helpful to her.
"In these obscure races you want to have every advantage you can get, and that three-word title is key," Stern said. "To be associated with the board is extremely important. The question is: Was she qualified to do this" job, he said.
Steel's campaign referred questions about her qualifications to the staff at the Board of Equalization. Board chief counsel Kristin Cazadd refused to comment on her qualifications, providing a written statement saying that "individual members have discretion in personnel decisions."
Steel's campaign acknowledged that it paid Frishman -- who in the 1990s was ordered by a court to do community service after Beverly Hills police found him with a BMW convertible he had rented and then reported stolen -- for "fundraising" work to do on his own time.
"Marcus Frishman is helping us raise money," said Tim Clark, a spokesman for Michelle Steel. Clark refused to say how much Frishman is being paid. Campaign finance laws will require Steel to make that information public later this month. "As with all fundraising activity, it will be reported when required by law," Clark said.
Parrish, who is running for state treasurer, and Michelle Steel have a number of campaign donors in common. Parrish, who has raised $188,000, collected more than $20,000 from contributors who also gave to Steel's campaign. More than half of the $20,000 was donated while Steel was on his staff.
Among the donors to both candidates is Shawn Steel, who gave $4,600 to Parrish and lent $75,000 to his wife.
Steel is a Republican activist who describes herself as part of an "elite group" of fundraisers for President Bush. She is a small-business woman, a political appointee to various boards and commissions, and a trustee of an emergency shelter for runaway youths.
She has a long list of endorsements from local Republican luminaries, many of whom have been helped by her husband.
"I endorsed Michelle because I have known her and her husband, Shawn, for many years," said Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby. "Shawn and I go way, way back." As for Steel's job title on the ballot, Norby said: "I don't know anything about that and I really don't care.... I'm sure whatever she listed was proper at the time. That is why it was approved."
Board of Equalization member Bill Leonard, a Republican who has endorsed Parrish in his campaign to become state treasurer, says he would have been comfortable with Steel's hiring if it weren't for the abrupt resignation soon after -- and the payments to Frishman.
"It raises all sorts of questions about a quid pro quo," he said.