Charges Against Mayor Daly May Be Dropped

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A municipal court judge agreed Tuesday to consider dismissing charges that Mayor Tom Daly violated campaign-finance laws--minutes after rejecting a bid by the special prosecutor who brought the charges to keep his job.

The rulings by Judge Gregg L. Prickett in the Municipal Court in Fullerton to uphold the City Council's firing of Ravi Mehta followed a similar ruling Monday by a Superior Court judge.

Mehta had appealed to the courts to block the council's March 17 decision to remove him from the special prosecutor post.

Prickett's decision was a blow to Mehta, who has been frantically fighting to keep his job investigating alleged campaign corruption in Anaheim. The probe has cost the city more than $118,000 through December, and bills for the last three months are not yet in.

Mehta, a former chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission who resigned last August under a cloud, was relieved from his local post after the cost of his investigation--which, including fees and expenses, added up to more than $40,000 a month--came under harsh criticism.

Political-reform advocates, usually the first to demand full disclosure of campaign finances, called the probe a politically motivated witch hunt.

Even as Mehta turned over his files to Irvine attorney Derek G. Johnson, a former Orange County deputy district attorney whom the City Council hired to replace Mehta, the former special prosecutor said he would take his fight to keep his job to the 4th District Court of Appeal.

"I have an obligation to ensure that the investigations continue and that they be brought to a closure if there are violations to prosecute," Mehta said.

In his court action, Mehta had charged that the council lacked the authority to fire him, that the firing constituted an obstruction of justice, and that the vote was void because of a conflict of interest on the part of council members Lou Lopez and Shirley McCracken, who voted to remove him.

Mehta said in court papers that he was investigating Lopez for alleged campaign-law violations. And last year, McCracken paid a $6,500 fine to settle a case Mehta had filed against her.

Anaheim's senior assistant city attorney, Cristina Talley, said the council was within its powers to fire Mehta with or without cause.

"We're glad it's over," Talley said after Prickett's ruling. "We're happy that Mr. Johnson can start doing his job. We're confident he's going to handle this case as objectively as any other prosecutor would."

Johnson has agreed to charge the city $185 an hour for his work, $155 an hour for his associates' work, and $85 an hour for any work done by paralegals or law clerks.

But he is taking on an investigation that has been controversial from the beginning.

At a rate of $250 an hour, Mehta's probe turned up a series of violations of campaign-finance law so minor that there is no precedent in California for handling them in criminal court. The investigation has focused mainly on such technical violations as missing deadlines for filing campaign reports, and neglecting to fill in names or addresses of individual donors.

No other city or county in California has ever hired a special prosecutor to investigate suspected campaign-finance violations, according to the FPPC, which routinely handles such violations and levies fines.

Since the investigation began, a city councilman, a former city councilman, a firefighters union's political committee and Anaheim lobbyist Stephen Sheldon have settled out of court with Mehta for fines the special prosecutor set himself. All faced criminal charges if they did not pay.

Mehta charged Daly with violating the city's campaign-finance ordinance by soliciting $7,000 from another Anaheim politician and the local firefighters union to finance a phone bank for two City Council candidates whom Daly supported in the 1996 election.

But Daly, who could have settled the matter by paying a fine in November, chose not to, saying he had done nothing wrong. Since then, about 200 Anaheim residents have lobbied the council to remove Mehta and hand the case to another attorney.

Mehta has maintained the funds were contributions and were illegal. City Atty. Jack L. White, who investigated the allegations before Mehta was brought in, declined to file charges, saying the funds were expenditures, not contributions. Expenditures are not covered under the local ordinance.

Daly was scheduled for arraignment Tuesday. But his attorney, William J. Kopeny, filed a motion with the court challenging the complaint against Daly, his treasurer, Debra Daly, and Daly's campaign committee.

Kopeny argued that under the state's Political Reform Act, the complaint is a civil matter that should be handled by the FPPC, not in criminal court.

Prickett is expected to rule on Kopeny's challenge May 1.

The arraignment for former Councilman Irv Pickler, also charged with misdemeanor violations stemming from the 1996 election, was also continued to May 1. Marshall Schulman, Pickler's attorney, said he will also file a challenge to the complaint, raising the same issues as Kopeny, before the May 1 hearing.

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