Live Like a God!

How Supervisor Bill Steiner used a phantom political campaign to fund his lavish lifestyle

Photo by Jack GouldIn November 1997, local government officials and business executives gathered at the 18th annual Anaheim Prayer Breakfast and asked God to make Anaheim a "first-rate city." They also ate sausage and eggs, bashed Bill and Hillary Clinton, and heard inspiring words from then-Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner.

"This prayer breakfast is an opportunity to give thanks for what we have in our lives," said Steiner. "It is not the election results or the riches we accumulate on Earth, but our faith in Jesus Christ that will be judged when we are gone."

Steiner was that kind of guy. "Ask friend or foe about William Steiner and get the same answer," Orange County Register reporters Chris Knap and Jeff Kramer wrote in 1995. "He's a nice guy [who] cares about people. He's smart and well-meaning."

It's hard to reconcile that with the facts. For the past several days, I've been studying the former supervisor's campaign-finance disclosure reports for January 1996 through December 1998 and trying to figure out why Steiner accepted and spent more than $54,000 in campaign contributions during the period.

My dilemma: after 1994, Steiner was never a candidate for public office; there had been no campaign and therefore no need for campaign contributions. While some officials raise contributions after an election to retire valid campaign debts, Steiner's 1994 committee had a $3,000 surplus in 1995-after he announced he would not seek re-election. Although the supervisor took contributions for the November 1998 election for the Fourth District (Anaheim, Orange, Placentia and Buena Park) seat, it was Lou Lopez-not Steiner-who ran against eventual winner Cynthia Coad. What's more puzzling is that with about a week left in his term and more than 40 days after the election in which he wasn't a candidate, Steiner grabbed a $1,000 "campaign contribution" from a Huntington Beach businessman.

As accounts in both the Register and Los Angeles Times document, Steiner-who was bitter about public outrage at supervisors after the board lost $1.7 billion overnight on Wall Street in 1994-unequivocally declared on Nov. 17, 1995, that he would not be a candidate for re-election in 1998. He told reporters that "he hated coming to work, the pressure." Steiner admitted he was already soliciting job offers from various corporations three years before his term in office expired. He publicly fretted about the costs of having two kids in college and that the supervisor's job was hurting his "marketability" for "six-figure [job] offers." The board was spending about $1 billion per year in taxpayers' money-a chunk of it going to local lobbyists and businesses-but the supervisor declined to identify his potential corporate benefactors.

We do know, however, who gave Steiner "campaign contributions" for his nonexistent campaign: not average citizens but rather those same lobbyists and businesses who rely on the Board of Supervisors to win lucrative county government contracts, garner political appointments or build massive housing developments. Orange County's most prolific real-estate developers-such companies as the Irvine Co., and Segerstrom & Sons, Signal Landmark and people like Bill Lyon, Doy Henley, and George Argyros-gave Steiner a total of more than $20,000 in "campaign" money when he had no campaign. Huntington Beach businessman Henry Yee, who was appointed to the county's prestigious protocol commission last year, gave Steiner $550 on Aug. 4, 1998. On July 10, 1998, two ambulance companies fighting to win the county's contract sent $1,000 in "campaign contributions." The Diamond Group, which won a plum noncompetitive consulting contract with the county, gave Steiner $1,000 on Jan. 22, 1998. Executives with SunCal, a real-estate development company then in trouble with county officials for a controversial residential hillside collapse in San Juan Capistrano, handed over $1,500 in October 1998. In Aliso Viejo, the AV Partnership, which was seeking county development approval for several parcels, contributed $250. Denver-based engineering consultants Woodward-Clyde gave $1,000. Butier Engineering of Huntington Beach won a $1.8 million government contract last year for a county landfill; it gave Steiner $250. Officials with Edison International Companies who have numerous deals with local government sent $500. Irvine's LSA Consultants, a business that last year boosted the value of its county contract for landscaping services on Newport Coast Drive from $27,000 to $137,320, handed the departing supervisor $750. The Weekly contacted several of the contributors to ask why they had given the supervisor money for a nonexistent campaign. None had an answer.

If there was no campaign for the Friends of Bill Steiner committee, where did the $54,000 in contributions go? Not to election polls, brochures or buttons but instead largely to Steiner himself-or, to be more precise, his prodigious belly.

Official records at the Registrar of Voters office in Santa Ana show that the Republican supervisor used at least $6,788 of the money to enjoy elaborate meals at Orange County's finest restaurants. He spent $2,858 at Antonello Ristorante near South Coast Plaza; his average bill at the restaurant: $476. He bought $3,133 worth of computer equipment, claiming it was "overhead" for the nonexistent campaign. He took $1,327 in cash without explanation other than "out-of-pocket expenses." More than $14,000 went to club memberships, luncheon meetings and magazine subscriptions, as well as charitable and political contributions. He spent $2,503 on posh hotel rooms, car rentals and airfare for personal trips. He paid $1,362 to the Robert Mondavi Winery. He used $20,727 to pay off credit-card bills, including $8,814 worth of unitemized transactions. What $338 "campaign" purchases the supervisor made at the Store of Knowledge and Crate & Barrel are also unknown.

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