Creators of Prop. 187 Largely Escape Spotlight : Ballot: From secret O.C. location, political novices and veterans spawn strong drive against illegal immigration.
Like other political neophytes who banded together last autumn for an all-out war against illegal immigration, Ronald Stephen Prince had a story to tell--a tale that would inspire the statewide “Save Our State” campaign.
His bitter account would become a campaign refrain: an illegal Canadian immigrant bilked him out of $500,000 in a construction project, and the judicial system offered no recourse. But it’s also an account sharply disputed by court records and the Canadian himself, who has lived in the United States legally for almost 33 years.
Frustrated, this obscure, enigmatic Tustin accountant stood in front of a Vons supermarket with a clipboard and pen in hand, hoping to whip up public sentiment against illegal immigrants. Eventually, he would become one of the key leaders of the SOS campaign.
Though the sweeping initiative and its prickly package of immigration reforms has unleashed powerful emotions on all sides, its founders at the California Coalition for Immigration Reform have labored in political anonymity, escaping the celebrity and scrutiny that often focuses on the authors of controversial ballot initiatives with far-reaching consequences.
A handful of political beginners and seasoned veterans have cobbled together a powerful volunteer movement from a statewide campaign headquarters in Orange County that is a secret location even to some of the leaders.
Some of the key players are citizens like Prince who are avenging injustices they believe were committed against them at the hands of illegal immigrants. Others believe illegal immigration has unfairly drained American tax dollars. Still others with the same agenda also will reap financial benefits from the campaign. Although the campaign has been touted as a volunteer effort, at least three of the organizers have billed the SOS campaign for tens of thousands of dollars for political consulting services.
Alan C. Nelson, the former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a co-author of the initiative, is owed $26,500 for his work, according to campaign finance reports.
Two other consultants, who have themselves petitioned for bankruptcy under Chapter 13, also have received more than $35,000 through June for managing the campaign and reimbursement of expenses, according to financial disclosure statements filed by the SOS committee. The consultants, Robert Kiley and his wife, Barbara--the mayor of Yorba Linda--are owed an additional $51,000 for their work.
The Kileys hosted the first strategy session that spawned the initiative, which would deny education, non-emergency health care and other public benefits to illegal immigrants. The measure, Proposition 187, faces a vote on Nov. 8.
When they all met last Oct. 5 at a posh, members-only Center Club in Costa Mesa, the future SOS leadership knew little about each other except that they shared the same contempt for illegal immigrants, a group some scorned in their newsletters for the “stench of urination, defecation, narcotics, savagery and death.”
The 10-member group--which included Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Arcadia)--recognized that it lacked money and a statewide political organization. But it had the determination to do something more active than--as one participant, a newsletter publisher, put it--"wring hands . . . and drink tea.”
They debated the issue for the entire day, settling on a strategy proposed by a political unknown, Prince: a statewide petition drive for an initiative to end public services to illegal immigrants.
A few weeks later, they would pick the name SOS--like the international distress signal--for their campaign while dining on Mexican food at a restaurant in Orange.
“Ron set everything up,” recalled Barbara Coe, co-chairwoman of the coalition, who had a network of political contacts that Prince sorely lacked.
“It was all his idea. He said, ‘If you people will pick up the ball, I will run with it.’ ”
For someone who has placed himself directly at the forefront of the state’s most controversial ballot initiative, Prince has proved a private man.
At 46, the campaign co-chairman guards details about his personal life more zealously than the location of the SOS headquarters, which is a closely held secret because the leaders fear retaliation from their opponents.
Prince, who says he is a fifth-generation Californian, politely refuses to say where he was born (Long Beach), where he resides (Tustin or Downey, according to government agency records), prefers not to divulge his middle name (Stephen), or to disclose his place of employment. He is an accountant who used to work for his family’s business in Downey, but now spends most of his workdays and weekends at the Tustin campaign office.
Why so private?
“Because of the repeated threats we have gotten, especially when it’s directed at me,” Prince says without elaborating. His SOS co-chair, Coe, says she recently received a dollar bill with a bullet hole drawn on George Washington’s forehead and drops of red-ink streaming down his face. She said the handwritten message on the bill read: “Beware of Prince and Coe.”
His reticence to discuss his background contrasts starkly with his smooth debating style during private and public forums on the illegal immigration issue.
Appearing cool and aloof at times, the volume and pace of his speech quickens only slightly as he defends the initiative against a coalition of opponents made up of civil rights activists, Roman Catholic church leaders, teachers and others.
So devoted was Prince to the movement that he donated $2,000 to get the SOS campaign off the ground late last year, and then loaned another $20,000 in May, according to campaign finance reports.
“Where the heck did he get the money?” asked William Baker, Prince’s former attorney who has a keen interest in his income.
Baker obtained a court judgment against Prince--that as of July totaled $9,643--after the accountant refused to pay the lawyer for defending him in the legal dispute involving a Canadian citizen who Prince contends defrauded him in a construction project. In a statement obtained by Baker last year, Prince said he was unemployed and had no assets.
During the course of that case, Prince dropped Baker as his attorney and filed with the secretary of state an unsuccessful proposal for an initiative measure that called for every member of the State Bar to be re-examined every four years. Prince said recently the events were unrelated.
Prince’s fight with his attorney was but a minor skirmish in the larger court battle between Prince and his former friend, Leonard Thomas Chornomud, 59, a Tustin auto garage owner and--INS records show--a legal Canadian immigrant.
Although Chornomud had no construction experience, both informally agreed in 1984 to finance and build an addition to Chornomud’s Tustin home. They later expanded their oral agreement to include construction of a home for Prince. Prince told a bankruptcy judge that he entered both projects to learn new steel-construction techniques possibly for future business ventures.
The partnership ended six years later, with each man accusing the other of fraud, according to court documents.
The pair slapped each other with lawsuits and countersuits in state and federal courts, but even the attorneys for both sides and the judge conceded that the deal--born out of friendship--was too messy to assign blame.
Perplexed by Prince’s contention that he had contributed about $70,000 for the projects, bankruptcy court Judge James N. Barr pointedly asked from the bench during an October, 1991, hearing why Prince gave the money.
Prince replied: “I am a nice guy, I am a good friend. I trusted Leonard and Gloria Chornomud. Gloria (who legally emigrated from Nicaragua) had gone on at great length about how honorable Spanish people were and that they could be trusted, and I believed her, because that has also been my experience in the past.”
Although Prince would later allege he had lost about $500,000 as a result of his dealings with Chornomud--the bankruptcy court case documented only $70,000--he settled for a $32,000 payment from Chornomud that ended the case in May, 1993.
Chornomud, meanwhile, contends to have lost even more.
A San Francisco Examiner article about the initiative published in June told of Prince being “defrauded by a Canadian citizen living here illegally, and (Prince) said he and others never would have lost money if this country took its immigration laws seriously.”
“It’s totally false,” says Chornomud in anger. “Our country is in trouble because of men like him. Our country is what it is today because of immigrants. It’s the immigrants that worked harder than any other group.”
Last week, Prince refused to discuss Chornomud.
At first, he contended Chornomud told him he was an illegal immigrant. But then later, he said Chornomud was not the illegal immigrant he had referred to in previous newspaper interviews. Was it possible that there could be another Canadian citizen who had allegedly bilked him out of a half-million dollars in a construction project?
“I am not going to tell you who it was,” said Prince. “I don’t think it’s pertinent.”
Prince argued that the news media had paid too much attention to his anecdote. The impetus for the campaign, he added, was not his story, but “the stories of all of the people I have talked to” who alleged they have been harmed by illegal immigrants.
If Prince is the philosopher of the movement, then Barbara A. Coe is its general.
When SOS formed last fall, the new coalition ended up relying on the extensive contacts of Coe, 60, a diminutive, chain-smoking woman with an apocalyptic vision of the world that is all exclamation points and question marks.
From her home in Huntington Beach, she presides over an active political network tied together by the passionate prose of her newsletter, “911.”
An Oklahoma native, Coe is a late-blooming political scrapper and mother of three who has contributed more than $15,000 to the SOS campaign. Coe works as a crime analyst for the Anaheim Police Department--a job that will end in December in forced retirement.
Gina Beitler, a representative of the Anaheim Municipal Employees Assn., said she helped Coe in her effort to save her job. Beitler said Coe came under fire within the department after she used a city Polaroid camera to snap a picture of striking dry wallers who were picketing police headquarters. Many of the strikers were illegal immigrants, primarily Mexican nationals.
Coe, who declined to comment on her job, complained to friends that she is being forced out because her immigration-reform activities interfered with her work.
Her political baptism came just three years ago when she went to an Orange County social services office to smooth out a dispute involving an elderly war veteran’s public health benefits.
The frantic scene in the lobby startled her, reminding her of the United Nations, she said. Coe noticed windows open to serve Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking clients but said the single one available for English-speaking applicants was closed.
“I walked in and I’m going, ‘Where am I?’ ” Coe recalled. “There were hundreds of people; I thought I was at UCI maternity ward--vast numbers were very pregnant. There was every language under the sun being spoken, and I am going, ‘What’s happening?’ ”
A welfare agency employee offered some answers and sympathy. Coe listened in dismay as the counselor complained that illegal immigrants were able to obtain the same services that were denied to Coe’s elderly friend.
“I went ballistic,” said Coe, whose rage led her to other immigration-reform groups that she found weak and powerless.
So Coe and a former INS border agent, Bill King, decided to form a group with more muscle. They placed a brief advertisement in a free newspaper announcing a Costa Mesa meeting of “everyone concerned about the illegal aliens problem.”
“We made a big pot of coffee, crossed our fingers and waited,” Coe said. To her surprise, almost 40 people showed up to listen to the featured speaker, none other than the same government worker who had complained to Coe about illegal immigrants.
From those grass-roots beginnings, Coe and King formed Citizens for Action Now, joining with other groups worried about illegal immigration.
That loose web of connections ultimately brought Prince and Coe together last fall, to form the California coalition for Immigration Reform.
“We clicked,” laughed Coe. “He said, ‘I’ve heard about you.’ I said, ‘I hope it’s good and if it isn’t, it’s a lie.’ ”
If Prince and Coe were the muscle behind the movement, then the stars in the beginning were two former top INS officials.
Nelson and Harold Ezell, who were known for their controversial styles at the INS, are credited with co-authoring the initiative. They lost their top positions in the INS in 1989 several months after George Bush took office and accepted their letters of resignation, which are routinely submitted by top appointed officials to a new President.
Campaign records show that Nelson was paid $26,000 for his early work on the initiative, although he says he has not received the money.
Nelson, a Sacramento-based lobbyist, and Ezell, of Newport Beach, say they have actually eased out of the day-to-day SOS campaign to form a national group of their own called Americans Against Illegal Immigration, which was organized after the SOS campaign was underway.
“My feeling is that there needs to be a lot of groups that are picking up this issue (nationally) and running with it,” said Ezell.
So distant are they from the current campaign, that Ezell says he has no idea where the SOS headquarters is.
However, both men continue to stump for the cause on radio shows and public forums. In their prior jobs with the INS, they proved to be masters at preaching the gospel of immigration reform. Ezell became known for his affinity for television cameras and microphones--sometimes holding as many as six news conferences a week during his six-year stint.
But Latino immigrant rights activists pressed for his resignation, and some Republican Administration officials also considered him an embarrassment.
In 1988, while the Justice Department was investigating deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Ezell danced with Imelda Marcos at a party hosted by the couple, and led a prayer asking for the exiled couple’s safe return to the Philippines.
Like Ezell, Nelson stirred controversy as INS commissioner. He produced a film touting his accomplishments in an effort to save his job but ultimately was ousted in 1989 after a seven-year stint.
Part of his undoing was an audit by the Justice Department, which criticized the INS for inefficiency. Nelson constantly engaged in battle with immigrant rights groups and drew fire when the INS planned to construct a four-mile ditch at the San Diego border.
Even before the SOS committee organized, Nelson was already a high-profile lobbyist for the cause through a consulting contract he had with Federation for American Immigration Reform. However, the group allowed the contract to expire late last year out of concern that Nelson’s political activities might threaten its nonprofit status.
Robert and Barbara Kiley are, by trade, political hired guns.
But this is the first time they have managed a high-profile statewide initiative campaign.
Leaders say the campaign is strictly volunteer. However, the Kileys’ political consulting business has received more than $35,000 during the first six months of the campaign for management services, commissions and overhead, according to campaign finance records. The firm is owed another $51,000 for the Kileys’ services.
“We’ve taken commissions but haven’t taken any salary,” said Robert Kiley, who added that they may not be paid the money still owed to them if more money does not come into the campaign.
In all, the campaign raised $335,923 through the end of June, with expenditures totaling $406,319. Those expenses included $115,000 paid to professional signature gatherers, American Petition Consultants of Rancho Cordova. They are owed another $38,506 for that effort.
Once the petition drive was underway late last year, the Kileys reported to bankruptcy court that they had new, unspecified business clients. Instead of being forced to liquidate their assets, the Kileys asked to convert their case from Chapter 7 to Chapter 13, which would let them pay off creditors with their new income.
Unlike Prince and Coe, who came to the fight with personal stories, Robert Kiley said his involvement does not stem from any first-hand experiences with immigrants.
“I believe in this issue. This was not a thing about money, basically we believe in the issue. We’re consultants and we like to be paid, but that’s not what this is about,” said Robert Kiley.
He said tax money is being wasted on illegal immigrants. “As a tax-paying citizen, I’m feeling pinches like everyone else,” Robert Kiley said.
While unaccustomed to controversial statewide campaigns, they are not new to political clashes.
Robert Kiley, a former member of President Reagan’s advance team, last year helped defeat a Newport Beach measure backed by environmentalists which would have taxed property owners to buy three bluff-top properties for open space preservation. Barbara Kiley, as a Yorba Linda council member, became the mayor last year by forming a coalition that denied the office to the next councilman in line.
Now they are in the biggest political fight of their careers.
Robert Kiley wonders whether the measure, if approved by voters, will face legal challenges. But at least, he said, they have accomplished their initial goal--to call attention to illegal immigration.
“What we wanted to do,” Robert Kiley said, “is wake up the Legislature.”
Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this report.
* IMPACT OF PROP. 187: Experts cite pros and cons of statewide initiative. A24
What Proposition Would Do
An initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot, if approved, would prohibit people who are not in this country legally from receiving educational, health and social services. Here’s what the proposition would do:
* Prohibit public education for undocumented immigrants.
* Halt non-emergency public health care to undocumented immigrants.
* Prohibit public social services to undocumented immigrants.
* Require health care facilities, educators, social service agencies and law enforcement officers to report suspected undocumented immigrants to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and other authorities.
* Order school districts to verify immigration, residency or citizenship status of all students and parents or guardians of students.
* Require public colleges and universities to verify the legal residency or citizenship status of all students enrolled after Jan. 1, 1995.
* Make forging, counterfeiting, distributing or selling citizenship and INS documents a state crime, punishable by five years in prison or a fine of as much as $75,000.
Source: State legislative analyst’s Office
Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times