Former Orange County Supervisor William G. Steiner is being sued by the city of Orange, which charges that Steiner and others violated a local campaign contribution law in an alleged scheme to get his son and another candidate elected to the City Council.
Also named as defendants were the Airport Working Group's political action committee and its chairwoman, Barbara Lichman, and treasurer, Corliss Delameter.
According to the lawsuit filed Thursday in Superior Court, Steiner, Doy Henley and John Vedder Croul funneled $33,000 through the PAC to support Steiner's son, Scott, and Joanne Coontz in November's City Council races.
The lawsuit charged the three men and the PAC with violating the city's Campaign Reform Ordinance, which limits individual contributions to $500 per candidate. PACs can spend no more than 25% of their total campaign expenditures supporting or opposing council candidates in Orange.
The lawsuit alleges that William Steiner made contributions of $10,000 and $5,000 to the Airport Working Group's committee a week before the Nov. 7 election. City officials allege that the PAC spent 100% of its expenditures on the council races of Coontz and Scott Steiner. Henley allegedly contributed $13,000 on the same day. Croul contributed $5,000 on Nov. 2.
According to the suit, the PAC used the contributions to pay for mailers and other campaign services for candidates Steiner and Coontz. Steiner lost; Coontz was reelected.
City Atty. David De Berry credited Shirley Grindle, a longtime political reform activist from Orange, with finding the alleged contribution violations.
Grindle did not return messages left at her home Friday.
In 1978, she wrote the first campaign finance reform law in Orange County. In 1993, she helped write a law barring county employees from accepting gifts from anyone doing business with the county. It is the strictest gift ban in California.
City officials are seeking $94,500 in civil penalties from the Airport Working Group's PAC, $43,500 from William Steiner, $37,500 from Henley and $13,500 from Croul.
Neither Steiner, who retired from the Board of Supervisors in January 1999, Henley nor Croul returned telephone calls. Lichman referred a reporter to attorney Dana Reed, who is representing the PAC.
Reed denied that PAC funds were used for the two council campaigns. Instead, he said, the contributions were used to "oppose" the campaigns of Steiner's and Coontz's opponents, Mike Alvarez and Carolyn Cavecche, who are viewed as opponents of an airport at El Toro.
"This lawsuit is a very serious matter that goes to the very heart of free speech," Reed said. "The city is basically telling the PAC it cannot communicate with the citizens of Orange in an important issue."
He said the mailers used against Alvarez and Cavecche "clearly stated [they were] from the PAC and the source of funding was fully disclosed."
Reed and Grindle often have found themselves on opposite sides of political battles where allegations of illegal contributions are raised. Reed often defends clients accused by Grindle of wrongdoing.
"I have an entire wing of my house dedicated to Shirley Grindle, because she has caused such havoc for some of my clients that I have been able to afford to build it," said Reed in a March 1998 Times story on Grindle's career as a government watchdog.