W. Hollywood Politician and Gadfly Faces Theft Charge
A perennial West Hollywood City Council candidate, whose acerbic community newspaper often took aim at the city’s political establishment, has become the target of a criminal investigation.
Steve Michael, 32, has been charged with grand theft for allegedly issuing two bad checks totaling more than $2,000, Deputy Dist. Atty. Elden Fox said.
Officials of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said a warrant has been issued for Michael’s arrest, but deputies have been unable to locate him.
“From what we have been able to piece together, he has apparently left town. We’ve been told he may be living in San Diego,” sheriff’s Capt. Mark Squiers said.
Michael is accused of writing two bad checks totaling $2,070.95 to the company that printed his campaign brochures for this year’s city election. He is charged with one count of grand theft and one count of issuing a check with nonsufficient funds, both misdemeanors.
“In the one instance, he issued a stop-payment request (for a $1,400 check) the day before he wrote it, indicating that he was dissatisfied with a product our investigation shows he had not even received,” sheriff’s Lt. Maynard Davis said. Although the criminal charges involve only two checks, documents attached to the warrant say investigators found that 26 dishonored checks were written by Michael on his account at the Bank of Los Angeles during a 12-week period from February through April.
According to court records, Michael pleaded no contest in 1985 to possession of a controlled substance, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to six days in jail and later placed on summary probation for two years. The probation ended last February.
The new charges each carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail.
Michael finished fourth among five candidates in April to lose his third bid for a council seat. He received only 673 votes, compared to 4,226 for incumbent Abbe Land and 3,429 for Paul Koretz, the two at-large winners. Third-place challenger Ruth Williams received 1,619 votes.
His twice-monthly newspaper, which ceased publication in April after a year of operation, often ridiculed elected officials, city bureaucrats and members of various city commissions.
Circulated free of charge to 12,000 households, the newspaper, West Hollywood USA, often bordered on inflammatory. It featured a regular gossip column that Michael wrote under the pseudonym “Dorothy.” Michael also helped deliver the newspaper.
Its irreverent “Grump of the Month” feature took turns poking fun at city officials and others, including Councilman Steve Schulte and community activist Ira Stein.
In January, the newspaper dubbed City Council candidate Williams “Ghoul of the Month” for passing out campaign literature after a memorial service on behalf of gay rights activist Sheldon Andelson.
When former massage parlor owner Hal Mintz was struggling to prevent the city from closing his business on grounds that it was being operated as a house of prostitution, Michael sent a volunteer “reporter” to the establishment for a massage at the newspaper’s expense. The result: an article detailing how, despite offering a masseuse a $50 “tip,” nothing was proffered except a “a very good massage.”
Michael, who portrayed himself as a “libertarian Republican,” often espoused the interests of the business and gay communities and frequently accused the City Council of neglecting those two groups.
A group of restaurants and bars, whose owners were members of the West Hollywood Restaurant and Bar Assn., advertised heavily in Michael’s newspaper.
But several restaurateurs complained that Michael tried to use the association for his own political purposes.
“I may have given him a little money (for the campaign), but I wasn’t backing him,” said Bill Gazzarri, who owns Gazzarri’s on the Strip. “Any candidate who asked me, I gave ‘em money, and as I recall he asked me. But he was no favorite of mine.”
Paul Morgan Fredrix, a part-time actor who was the newspaper’s unsalaried managing editor and Michael’s campaign manager, said: “I think Steve genuinely wanted to help make a difference in the community for good. At heart I know he held strong feelings about what was happening in the community and saw in the newspaper the opportunity to express those feelings.”
Others acquainted with Michael said that before starting the newspaper, he had worked as a car salesman in Hollywood and owned a used-furniture store on Melrose Avenue.
While struggling to make a success of the newspaper, he often tended bar in local restaurants “for side money,” said Robert K. Davis, who contributed articles to the publication.
“Steve had apparently been involved in a little throwaway publication in Washington state. He had a bug for it. It was something he could do that gave him an opportunity to vent some of his frustrations,” Davis said. “But the main thing was, he was a political junkie. So it was the perfect outlet for him.”
Beverly Butler, who worked briefly as Michael’s office manager, said that while most people in the community thought the paper was little more than a campaign vehicle for her ex-boss, “his association with it was really more than that.”
"(The restaurant owners) talked him into running for the council well after the newspaper thing started,” she said. “But because they were squeamish about making contributions to him directly, they wanted to funnel what were really political contributions through the newspaper.
“By the time he saw that they really weren’t going to come through for him with real contributions, he’d gotten the (political) fever. I really think he thought he might win.”
While insisting that Michael “is not the bad guy people make him out to be,” Butler added: “He does owe me several weeks’ pay. I can’t forgive him for that.”