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In anticipation of a furious Republican assault during the upcoming political season, Loretta Sanchez's Democratic allies are quietly trying to remove one of the more weighty skeletons from the first-term congresswoman's closet. Howard Kieffer--a four-time convicted felon who happens to be Sanchez's longtime close friend and business associate--has been unceremoniously drummed out of the Orange County Democratic Foundation (OCDF), a well-to-do fund-raising organization headed by Sanchez's campaign chairman, Wylie Aitken.
Multiple sources said Aitken recently pushed through a vote at a sparsely attended OCDF meeting and then sent Kieffer a terse letter announcing that he was no longer welcome in the group. Kieffer--who has been a member of the $1,000-per-year club since the 1980s, even in between convictions--was not present for the vote.
Such decisive pressure to put Kieffer on the sideline was long in coming. In April 1996, the Weekly exposed Sanchez's tight business, political and personal relationship with Kieffer after the then-congressional hopeful adamantly refused repeated requests to disclose the names of her business associates. When confronted with Kieffer's name, Sanchez said that she was fully aware of his long list of crimes, but, she claimed, they would remain "close friends" regardless of political pressure.
"What am I supposed to do? Shun him?" Sanchez said before her battle with then-incumbent Congressman Robert K. Dornan heated up.
If OCDF's move is any indication, Sanchez has had a change of heart since winning a seat in Congress. Last November, political circles buzzed with talk of Sanchez pleading with Kieffer to stay away from her victory celebrations.
But queasiness over the potential PR nightmare peaked last month when Kieffer reportedly told fellow Foundation members that he planned to travel with the group to Sacramento to meet with Democratic bigwigs like Assembly Speaker Cruz M. Bustamante. OCDF representatives also regularly fly to Washington, D.C., to hobnob with such federal politicians as Sanchez, Senator Dianne Feinstein and President Bill Clinton. These meetings are as much photo-op as substance, and some worried that having Democratic dignitaries posing with a known felon would give the GOP potent campaign ammunition.
"The decision to dump Kieffer was made because they don't want any more fallout for Loretta," said one high-ranking Democratic official. "He's viewed as a major political liability for her re-election. But she started her career with the guy, and--no matter what we try to do--that fact isn't going to go away. The Republicans can always use that."
According to criminal court records, Kieffer's rap sheet dates back to 1976, when he was found guilty of possessing $48,828 in stolen checks, a conviction that was set aside because of his age (he was 20 at the time). In 1983, he was convicted of grand theft, and a year later, he was convicted of forgery and grand theft for illegally deeding a widow's house to himself. Between 1985 and 1989, he violated probation by using a former employer's credit card to buy himself furniture. During that period, a probation officer wrote, "It is apparent [Kieffer] is criminally oriented and will continue with his criminal acts despite probation supervision unless the cost of his criminal conduct becomes too prohibitive for him." In 1989, a federal court fined Kieffer $212,824 and sentenced him to a five-year prison sentence for operating what prosecutors described as a "well-planned, well-executed fraud" involving two nonexistent businesses and an income-tax-refund scam.
After the Weekly's April 1996 revelations and expecting further media scrutiny, Sanchez deleted from her résumé any mention of her role as "director of client relations for District Counsel," one of Kieffer's businesses. She also sent a letter to the Weekly claiming Kieffer and District Counsel had no role in her campaign. The letter came from District Counsel's fax machine.
Such public screwups with Kieffer apparently won't happen again.
Political strategists from both major parties say Sanchez is in for a grueling battle next year. Since the day after the last election, Republicans have been lining up to take back the seat. Potential GOP challengers so far include Lisa Hughes, a millionaire lawyer; Anaheim City Councilman Bob Zemel, who has hired ex-Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed as a consultant; and Superior Court Judge James P. Gray. Being the wishy-washy pol he is, Dornan has given conflicting answers about whether he will run again.