Supervisor wrongly received money

Times Staff Writer

Newly elected Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen solicited secret donations above the campaign contribution limit in an effort to quickly pay down her legal debts, an apparent violation of campaign finance law, according to interviews and an e-mail obtained by The Times.

The solicitations came as Nguyen was seeking money to cover her legal costs defending a hair-thin victory in the Feb. 6 special supervisorial election. Among those approached were public employee unions and trade groups representing business interests that regularly come before the Board of Supervisors.

Donors were asked to make checks out to a client trust fund of her campaign attorney, Phillip Greer, and to mail the checks to her Garden Grove campaign address.


In an interview Thursday, Nguyen admitted that she sought the contributions but said she did so on the advice of her lawyers, under the belief that it was legal because politicians at the local, state and federal level are allowed to maintain legal defense funds. She said she had selected the people to whom the requests were sent based on personal contacts.

She said she instructed her lawyer to return the donations shortly after the end of the trial in late March when Orange County Superior Court Judge Michael Brenner declared her the winner by just three votes.

“That was sent after my election,” Nguyen said in the interview, referring to the solicitation e-mail she sent to potential donors.

“At that time, I was advised my legal fund is not related to the campaign, so therefore it was not a campaign contribution.

“Since then, after the recount and trial went through, I was advised” that apparently Orange County has different contribution rules, she said, and decided to take the “conservative route” by instructing her lawyer to refund the money.

Nguyen’s campaign is facing at least $100,000 in debt from the campaign and the protracted legal battle to keep the seat, which covers Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Westminster.


The debt puts Nguyen’s campaign in a sizable hole, and raising donations under the legal limit will require dozens of contributions at the maximum amount to pay it off. Meanwhile, legal expenses from the court battle continue to mount, and she must run again next year, when her seat comes up for its regularly scheduled election.

Asked about the matter in recent weeks, Nguyen’s chief of staff, campaign consultant, campaign treasurer and pollster all said they had no knowledge of a legal defense fund or denied it existed. Greer did not return a call seeking comment.

Nguyen acknowledged the existence of the fund Thursday after being told of her e-mail. A copy of the e-mail was provided to The Times by a person who received the solicitation.

“I’m trying to raise $60K to pay for my legal fees for the upcoming trial this week,” Nguyen wrote to the potential contributor. “There are two options to help me.”

The first option was the legal defense fund, with no contribution limit, with instructions to make the check out to Greer’s attorney-client trust fund. The second was a donation to her campaign account, with a $1,600 limit. All checks were to be sent to Friends of Janet Nguyen.

Two sources familiar with the solicitations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared alienating county supervisors, said Nguyen and a political aide emphasized that the contributions were “not reportable,” meaning they would not have to be publicly disclosed.


Michael Schroeder, a lawyer for Nguyen’s chief rival for the seat, Trung Nguyen, who is continuing to fight the election case in court, said Janet Nguyen should fully disclose who contributed to her legal effort.

Orange County’s strict campaign finance law explicitly defines donations for legal expenses as campaign contributions that are subject to the donation limit and disclosure requirements. It also prohibits candidates from maintaining more than one financial account.

Records on file at the Orange County registrar’s office show Nguyen signed a statement Dec. 12 acknowledging that she received a copy of the campaign finance ordinance as part of her candidate handbook.

Nguyen said she could not recall exactly when she told her lawyer to return the donations but added that she repeated the request last week and Thursday morning as well.

She said there were only three donors who gave amounts above the $1,600 limit but said she did not know who the donors were or whether the money had been returned yet.

The county law also requires candidates to provide written notice to the registrar’s office when excessive contributions are returned to donors, including the donors’ names and amounts. The registrar’s office said it had not received any such notice from the Nguyen campaign.


Shirley Grindle, the campaign finance watchdog who wrote Orange County’s contribution law, said the Nguyen campaign’s actions appeared to violate at least two provisions of the law.

“If that isn’t evasion, I don’t know what is,” she said. “They can’t do this.”