By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Most people remember the Little Saigon protests of 1999 as the Vietnamese-American community's coming-of-age party. It all started when Truong Van Tran, proprietor of Hi-Tek Video in Little Saigon, hung up a Vietnamese flag and a poster of Ho Chi Minh on the wall of his store. Hundreds, then thousands, and finally tens of thousands of his neighbors showed up to protest; their anger sparked international media coverage.
The protest ultimately led to Tran's eviction from the store and his arrest and incarceration for video piracy, which occurred when detectives responding to an alleged break-in at the store discovered dozens of VCRs and a cache of illegally copied videos in his attic.
But in reality, the protests had nothing to do with Ho Chi Minh, communism or freedom of speech. In an exclusive interview with the Weekly,Orange Unified School District trustee Steve Rocco alleged the protests were actually part of an elaborate conspiracy to protect the Partnership, a secret organization that Rocco believes pulls the strings of Orange County government, thus threatening the education of school kids in Orange. It's just the latest amazing revelation to come from the lips of Orange County's most unusual school official. (For more information on the Partnership, if not so much about educational issues actually relevant to Rocco's elected position on the school board, see the "Rocco Files Archive" at www.ocweekly.com.
"The Little Saigon riots were planned," Rocco says. "They were just a smokescreen."
The way Rocco sees it, the timing of the protests tells the whole story. They took place nearly 20 years after he was convicted of shoplifting a sausage and Kodak film from an Albertsons store in Santa Ana, a conviction that provided—to Rocco at least—the first evidence of the Partnership. Originally, the Partnership only included Albertsons and Kodak Film Company, but it quickly expanded to boast membership from Barbara Tam Nomoto Schumann, the judge who sent Rocco to jail for shoplifting.
But the protests also took place right as Rocco was finally lowering the boom on the Partnership, through a series of correspondence he sent to Schumann and other alleged Partnership co-conspirators, including Rocco's ex-attorney from the shoplifting case. "This is in 1998 and 1999—pre-Little Saigon riots," Rocco said. "I've sent agents to all these people. They feel threatened. All of a sudden all these people are showing up at my house from the Sheriff's Department and the Marshal's office."
One of those people was Mat Garner, an Orange County marshal with the judicial protection unit whose business card Rocco showed to the Weekly."His purpose was to get me to take a deal," Rocco said, hinting that Garner's motives extended beyond the obvious task of measuring a potential threat to a judge from an irate ex-shoplifting defendant. "Garner told me, 'There are only two true things in this world: taxes and Steve Rocco will never give up,'" Rocco gleefully recalled.
Apparently, Rocco had struck a nerve. Something—preferably something big like a months-long anti-communist vigil in Little Saigon—had to be cooked up to thwart Rocco and his efforts to reveal the Partnership. That, Rocco says, explains why Schumann ruled that Tran had a First Amendment right to display a pro-communist flag in his store. Schumann's ruling kept the flag on the wall and provided the protesters with a cause—and weeks worth of publicity, all of which prevented the media from covering Rocco's crusade against the Partnership.
To prove his case, Rocco provided the Weeklywith documents showing that store owner Tran's lawyer, Ronald Talmo, contributed $100 to Judge Schumann's political campaign in 1996. Schumann's ruling was obviously payback for that contribution, Rocco says.
"Everybody remembers the protests, but how many people remember the judge?" Rocco asked. "People remember Tran, but not [Schumann]. Her reward was a cushy job in family court. She was put on the Safe at Home program around that time," Rocco added, referring to a program that provides security for judges whose rulings might make them targets for harassment or threats to their personal safety.
Given that he's still battling the Partnership, which is obviously still out to get him—what else would it be doing?—Rocco confesses he's more than a bit jealous of Schumann.
"She's one safe little puppy," he said. "I'm glad she's safe, because I'm scared as hell."