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Prop. 187 Creators Come Under Closer Scrutiny : Initiative: From secret location, political veterans and novices lead the campaign against illegal immigration.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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.

His bitter account would become a refrain in a fiercely contested initiative campaign: An illegal Canadian immigrant bilked him out of $500,000 in a construction project, and the judicial system offered no recourse. But it is also an account sharply disputed by court records and the Canadian himself, who has lived in the United States legally for almost 33 years.

The frustrated Prince, an 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 initiative campaign.

Though the sweeping measure has unleashed powerful emotions on all sides, its founders at the California Coalition for Immigration Reform have labored in political anonymity, escaping the scrutiny that is often focused on the authors of controversial ballot initiatives with far-reaching consequences.

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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 that they believe were committed against them at the hands of illegal immigrants. Others believe illegal immigration has unfairly drained U.S. tax dollars. Still others with the same agenda will reap financial benefits from the campaign. Although it has been touted as a volunteer effort, at least three organizers have billed the campaign for tens of thousands of dollars for political consulting services.

Alan C. Nelson, former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and co-author of the initiative, is owed $26,500 for his work, according to campaign finance reports.

Two other consultants, who have 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 initiative’s organizing committee. The consultants, Robert Kiley and his wife, Barbara--the mayor of Yorba Linda--are owed $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 Nov. 8.

When they all met last Oct. 5 at the members-only Center Club in Costa Mesa, the future leadership of the campaign 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 picked the name SOS--like the international distress signal--for their campaign while dining on Mexican food at an El Torito restaurant in Orange.

“Ron set everything up,” said Barbara Coe, co-chairperson 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 Proposition 187 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), 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 said without elaborating. His 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 blood streaming down his face. She said the handwritten message on the bill read: “Beware of Prince and Coe.”

His reluctance to discuss his background contrasts starkly with Prince’s smooth debating style during private and public forums on the illegal immigration issue.

Appearing cool and aloof at times, he increases the volume and pace of his speech 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 campaign off the ground 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--which 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 claims 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 that called for every member of the State Bar to be re-examined every four years. Prince said recently that 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 immigrant from Canada.

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 speculative agreement to include construction of a home for Prince, who hoped 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 claim 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 immigrated 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 claim 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, claims 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,” said 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 claimed Chornomud told him he was an illegal immigrant. Later, he said Chornomud was not the illegal immigrant he had referred to in previous interviews. Was it possible that there could be another Canadian citizen who had allegedly bilked him out of half a million dollars in a construction project?

“I am not going to tell you who it was,” Prince said. “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 said they had been harmed by illegal immigrants.

*

If Prince is the philosopher of the movement, then Barbara A. Coe is its general.

When it 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 who has contributed more than $15,000 to the campaign against illegal immigration.

Coe’s political baptism came 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.

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 ad 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 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.

Former director Nelson and former western regional chief Harold Ezell, who were known for their controversial styles at the agency, 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.

Nelson, a Sacramento-based lobbyist, and Ezell, of Newport Beach, say they have eased out of the day-to-day Proposition 187 campaign to form a national group of their own called Americans Against Illegal Immigration, which was organized after the campaign was under way.

“My feeling is that there needs to be a lot of groups that are picking up this issue (nationally) and running with it,” Ezell said.

So distant are they from the state campaign that Ezell said he has no idea where the campaign headquarters is located.

However, both men continue to stump for the cause on radio shows and public forums. In their INS jobs 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 considered him an embarrassment.

Like Ezell, Nelson stirred controversy as INS commissioner. He produced a film touting his accomplishments in an effort to save his job, but was ousted in 1989 after a seven-year stint.

Part of his undoing was an audit by the Justice Department that criticized the INS for inefficiency. Nelson constantly engaged in battles 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 Proposition 187 committee organized, Nelson was a high-profile lobbyist for the cause through a consulting contract he had with the 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,” Robert Kiley said.

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 petition gatherers, with another $38,506 still owed for that effort.

Once the petition drive was under way late last year, the Kileys reported to bankruptcy court that they had new 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 firsthand 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,” he said.

Tax money is being wasted on illegal immigrants, he said, adding that “as a taxpaying citizen, I’m feeling pinches like everyone else.”

Robert Kiley wonders whether the measure, if approved by voters, will face legal challenges. But at least, he said, the Proposition 187 group has accomplished its initial goal--to call attention to illegal immigration.

“What we wanted to do,” he said, “is wake up the Legislature.”

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this report.


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