Ending a political drama that captivated Anaheim, a judge on Friday dismissed charges against Mayor Tom Daly and a former councilman accused by a special prosecutor of violating campaign finance laws.
The decision comes eight months after the City Council took the unprecedented step of hiring a special prosecutor to investigate alleged campaign law violations during the 1996 election. The prosecutor, Ravi Mehta, former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, racked up $302,000 worth of bills before the council fired him in March.
In handing down the ruling Friday, Orange County Municipal Judge Gregg L. Prickett said the council had "no authority [to hire] a special prosecutor, period."
Prickett said the city should have asked the district attorney's office or state attorney general's office to investigate any campaign irregularities.
Daly said Friday that he feels vindicated by the ruling, which he said proves that Mehta's investigation was "out of control" and politically motivated.
"This was a clear abuse of power and an abuse of the judicial process for raw political gain," he said. "It was a colossal waste of taxpayers' money."
Mehta, however, stood by his investigation.
"When I filed the charges, I believed they were guilty," Mehta said. "I still believe they are guilty, and the judge's decision still does not exonerate them."
Mehta filed misdemeanor charges in January against Daly and former Councilman Irv Pickler alleging they accepted campaign contributions that exceeded donation limits and failed to itemize and report the donations.
The mayor's campaign treasurer--his wife, Debra--was also charged in the case, which involved $10,000 that Mayor Daly, Pickler and the Anaheim Firefighters Political Action Committee used to help two other council candidates. The judge on Friday also dropped charges against Debra Daly. The couple have separated since the charges were filed.
Attorneys for the mayor and former councilman argued that the allegations were a civil matter and should be handled by the Fair Political Practices Commission, not a criminal court judge.
"It was so clear that they couldn't bring this prosecution," said Marshall M. Schulman, Pickler's attorney, "This was a bad prosecution from the get-go. . . . This was a City Council that went awry--went bad."
Mehta also threatened criminal prosecutions against other former and current council members, as well as the firefighters PAC. But those defendants agreed to settle the cases by paying fines to the city.
Daly and Pickler at one point agreed to settle their cases as well. But they ultimately decided to fight the charges.
A divided City Council appointed Mehta after City Atty. Jack L. White said he had a conflict of interest and couldn't investigate the council members who appointed him. In September, White wrote a memo to the council saying he didn't believe Daly had violated any laws.
No other city or county in California has ever hired a special prosecutor to examine suspected campaign finance violations.
Several community activists questioned whether Mehta's probe was politically motivated because the alleged violations were relatively minor.
"This was a total waste of time and resources, and it damaged people's reputations," said Harold Bickford, one Anaheim activist.
Added Shirley Grindle, a respected county government watchdog: "This is a case that should have never been filed in the first place."
Mehta billed Anaheim $302,000 for his work, but the city has so far paid him only $240,000. Some of the charges submitted by Mehta were not properly documented or were excessive, White said.
After Mehta was fired, the council appointed Irvine attorney Derek G. Johnson to replace him. Johnson continued to pursue charges against Daly and Pickler. Johnson could not be reached for comment Friday.
Councilman Bob Zemel, a political foe of Daly's who supported the Mehta investigation, expressed disappointment over the judge's decision.
"This decision has nothing to do with guilt or innocence," he said. "This decision is about how the technicalities are handled."