A Superior Court judge Wednesday dismissed civil charges against Costa Mesa City Councilman Chris Steel, citing insufficient evidence that he intentionally committed election fraud.
Steel still faces state charges on similar complaints, which will be heard July 31.
"One down, one to go," Steel said after the ruling, which followed three days of hearings in a Santa Ana courtroom.
But Michael Szkaradek, the Costa Mesa attorney and accountant who brought the civil suit, said Steel shouldn't rejoice yet. He said the district attorney's office will be able to make a stronger case than he could in the civil trial.
Szkaradek had accused Steel of submitting forged signatures on his 1998 and 2000 nomination papers and asked the court to remove him from office. Only the 2000 election papers were considered in the civil trial.
While collecting signatures for his nomination, Steel included two from Richard Noack. Noack signed the papers for himself and for his wife, Marilyn.
Szkaradek noted that the handwriting was the same and initiated civil and criminal proceedings.
Marilyn Noack testified that she often allows her husband of 45 years to sign official documents because "he's very up on everything."
Steel's attorney, Ron Cordova, told Superior Court Judge Patrick Colaw that there was no case law to support removal from office even if there had been criminal intent, which he said was not the case here.
"It may have been negligent, but that does not make it an offense" against the voters or office, Cordova said.
Szkaradek introduced a few telephone recordings by Steel as evidence but believes his case was hampered because he could not introduce more. In one, Steel admitted that he "made a big mistake" while collecting signatures.
"I should have stopped right then and there," he said in a series of messages left on a district attorney investigator's voicemail late on the night of Dec. 29, 2000. "I should have said, 'Thanks but no thanks' [but] I didn't see any harm in it. . . . I really blew it here, I really made a big mistake here."
In the criminal case, Steel is charged with two felony counts of submitting campaign nomination papers with forged signatures before the 1998 and 2000 elections. He has pleaded not guilty. A judge denied Steel's request to have the charges reduced to misdemeanors.