Anaheim Ousts Watchdog Hired to Keep Tabs on Campaigns

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An independent prosecutor, whose bills to the city for his probe of campaign-finance law violations have sparked a public outcry, was fired Tuesday night by the City Council.

Ravi Mehta, former chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, has billed the city more than $118,000 so far.

He was accused of excessive spending and of conducting a politically motivated investigation--at the behest of some council members--into allegations of campaign abuses by Mayor Tom Daly and others in 1996.

The job now will be offered to Derek G. Johnson, an Irvine attorney.

"The cost is a problem," said Councilman Lou Lopez, who had voted to launch Mehta's investigation. Lopez said he had figured it would last several weeks, but it has lasted nearly five months.

Mehta, who lives in Sacramento, was charging the city $250 an hour. From last October through December, he had billed the city nearly $114,000 for his work and $4,360 for travel expenses. Bills for his services the last three months have not been submitted.

Lopez and Councilwoman Shirley McCracken voted for the firing. Councilman Tom Tait, who ran for council in 1996, and Daly abstained. Both left the council chambers for the discussion and vote.

Councilman Bob Zemel vehemently opposed the move, calling it an obstruction of justice.

"I say let him finish the job he was hired to do and don't obstruct his efforts," Zemel said. "If the motivations are truly about the money, then why aren't they addressing those issues? The money seems to be the excuse to get rid of a prosecutor who's tough on crime."

Mehta, who attended the council meeting, said he offered to drop his fee to $200 an hour and limit his work to eight hours a day in response to the council's concerns.

"I agreed to lower my fees because I believe this case should be prosecuted by the prosecutor that initiated the prosecution," he said.

Lopez said Johnson would charge $200 an hour and would not bill for travel.

"His cost will be 40% to 50% less," Lopez said.

Lopez said he brought the issue before the council because he has the same concerns as some residents about Mehta's spiraling costs. He said he has also asked for an audit of Mehta's services.

Both Lopez, who is seeking the 4th District supervisor's seat, and Zemel have come under fire in recent weeks for their decision in September to hire Mehta to investigate whether any state or city campaign-finance laws had been violated in the 1996 City Council race.

Criminal misdemeanor charges have been filed against five individuals or groups alleging they breached state and city campaign contribution laws. All but one of those have been resolved with civil agreements and fines paid to the city.

Johnson would take over the unresolved case, which is against Daly, his treasurer Debra Daly and former Councilman Irv Pickler. They are accused of accepting donations that exceeded legal limits and failing to itemize and report them. Their arraignment is scheduled for March 27 in Fullerton Municipal Court.

Mehta said Tuesday that he was "concerned about the impact and the prejudice to the people's case" if his contact was canceled with that arraignment so close.

No other city or county in the state has ever hired a special prosecutor to investigate suspected campaign-finance law violations.

Critics have charged that the investigation is a political inquisition, a waste of taxpayers' money, and exposes relatively minor violations. They also have said there appears to be selective prosecution of some council members and not others.

More than a dozen residents addressed the council Tuesday, most of them urging the three voting members to dismiss Mehta.

A new group that has emerged, Taxpayers Expecting Accountability, also has begun a recall of Lopez and Zemel, whose council terms expire in November.

Harold J. Bickford, a member of that group, said it plans to move ahead and begin gathering the 10,000 signatures to force a recall election.

The cases Mehta has settled include criminal misdemeanor charges for reporting violations against former Councilman Frank Feldhaus, who paid $10,000 to the city, and the Anaheim firefighters' political action committee, which paid a $20,000 fine.

Mehta also charged McCracken with campaign reporting errors, for which she agreed to pay the city $6,500. Last week, charges against a Lake Forest political committee, led by Stephen Sheldon, for receiving illegal contributions was also settled. The group agreed to pay $9,355--the amount it had left in its fund--to the city.

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