Live Like a God!

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

If you thought Steiner's financial windfall would be blatantly illegal, you'd be wrong. Yes, the purpose of Orange County's 1992 voter-approved campaign-reform statute (TINCUP: Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics) was to "ensure that the financial strength of certain individuals or organizations does not permit them to exercise a disproportionate or controlling influence" on local politicians and to "maintain public trust in government institutions and the electoral process."

But according to Shirley Grindle, TINCUP's creator and Orange County's most vigorous campaign/government-reform advocate, there is "obviously a big loophole" in any election law that fails to outlaw campaign contributions to non-candidate elected officials. Grindle also said it was a conflict of interest for Steiner to accept money from corporations doing business with the county. (There is a state law that prohibits public officials from participating in any government decision in which they have a financial stake, but that is rarely enforced.)

Instead of keeping the "contributions" for himself, Steiner should have considered the "awful appearance" of the gifts and refunded them, according to Grindle.

"If he's not running [for public office], then why does he need campaign contributions?" Grindle asked. "Welcome to the world of politics."

Steiner "always liked to hobnob with the big shots in the county. He liked to play everybody's sugar daddy," she said. "I was always suspicious of him, and I told him to his face that I was glad he was leaving [the board]."

If Steiner escapes the scrutiny of California's campaign-finance authorities, he may not ultimately walk away completely unchecked by federal authorities. According to Judy Kindell, an IRS official in Washington, D.C., a political candidate has no personal tax liability for incoming campaign contributions. But an individual-say, someone who wasn't a candidate but nevertheless accepted contributions-may be personally obligated to pay taxes on the money if the contributions were converted to personal use.

"For our purposes, the question is: What did he spend the contributions on? If he spent the money on himself, then that's considered his income," said Kindell. "We look at these situations on a case-by-case basis, but I can tell you that we'd be very interested in taking a look [at how contributions were spent when a campaign didn't exist]."

When Steiner left office in January, he took a management job with Childhelp USA, a politically high-profile, Arizona-based nonprofit group. He did not return calls for comment.

Steiner has maintained a soft grandfatherly reputation, probably due to his work from 1978 to 1993 at the local Orangewood home for abused, neglected and mentally ill children. Among his supporters, it's considered impolite to point out that Steiner was not a volunteer but rather a generously compensated executive with the charity. While at Orangewood, he began socializing with the county's ultrawealthy and politically powerful. Those connections paid off in 1993, when Governor Pete Wilson appointed him to replace Supervisor Don Roth, who had resigned amid a criminal probe into tens of thousands of dollars' worth of meals, trips, loans, golf games, tickets and other gifts Roth and his aides accepted from Orange County real-estate developers and corporate lobbyists.

During his swearing-in ceremony, Steiner said "ethical government" would be the "hallmark" of his term in office. He claimed he was joining the board to "restore public trust" after the disillusioning Roth scandal. It "must be clearly understood that there is no substitute for personal integrity," he proudly declared. He immediately tried to distance himself from Roth's cozy lunches with lobbyists; on his first day at the County Hall of Administration, he carried a brown bag with a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to work. "I hope that something as basic, as simple and as informal as a brown-bag lunch would convey an important message," he said at the time. "It would make a statement that I'm not going to let this job go to my head. I'm not going to lose my perspective."

It's probable that if Steiner ever had perspective, he lost it early: the campaign contributions that launched his political career as an Orange City Council member in 1983 were from real-estate developers Lyons, Kathryn G. Thompson and Mission Viejo Company president James Gilleran. There's also the fact that at one point during his tenure, the self-proclaimed fiscal conservative had the largest annual staff budget on the board: $587,743. And that one of his first staff hires was a lobbyist from the Irvine Co. And that he was spending thousands of taxpayer dollars to take business executives to breakfast. And that in addition to his public pay and responsibilities, he took up to $10,000 per year for "consulting" private groups. And that he helped limit an official probe into wrongdoing against children at Orangewood. And even that he routinely sent potential government contractors fund-raising solicitations after their visits to the county Hall of Administration.

Steiner's image fooled most of the people most of the time. But not Peter A. Caruso, a disabled Irvine salesman and volunteer president of the California branch of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In 1996, Caruso had resigned from the nonprofit group in protest over revelations that the supervisor-who served on the organization's board-had secretly arranged to personally profit ($5,500) from fund-raisers for the charity. "I feel very strongly that what you did was wrong," Caruso wrote to Steiner. "And I stand by my personal convictions that I could no longer serve on the board with you."

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