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After being notified by the FPPC that the donations were in fact illegal, Nguyen promptly returned the cash, and in December, she paid a $5,000 fine. Do, Nguyen's chief of staff, claims the donations were solicited on the advice of her attorneys. "As soon as the supervisor knew [of the violation], she reversed the process and refunded the money," he says. "It was a technical violation, but there was no [criminal] intent."
Schroeder claims Nguyen lied for months about the existence of the fund. "She was directly asked five different times by the media if she had a legal-defense fund, and she lied and said no," he says. "If she thought it was legal, why did she lie?" After filing his FPPC complaint, he also sent a letter to the California attorney general's office demanding Nguyen be investigated for criminal wrongdoing.?But Shirley Grindle, a good-government activist who authored the county's campaign-disclosure ordinance, says Schroeder is a hypocrite because, while Nguyen returned her illegal contributions, Schroeder advised one of his many clients, disgraced former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, not to return a $2,204 contribution that exceeded by 200 percent the monetary donations allowed under county law. Grindle believes Schroeder, who also works for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, is simply harassing Nguyen so she'll have a harder time winning her June 2008 re-election campaign, thereby increasing Trung Nguyen's chances of winning the race.
"I don't want Mike Schroeder with his dirty fingers in the Board of Supervisors," Grindle says. "It's bad enough he has his hands in the DA and the Sheriff's Department. Mike Schroeder is one of the most evil persons we have in Orange County in terms of politics, and he needs to go. He's awful."
Although he doesn't share Grindle's personal dislike of Schroeder, Mark Bucher, treasurer of the Orange County Republican Party, wrote a November 2007 essay for the conservative magazine Red County arguing that Schroeder's attacks on Nguyen were destroying the party. "Trung Nguyen and his lawyer, Mike Schroeder, are attempting to weaken Supervisor Janet Nguyen through personal attacks, accusations of criminal behavior, and serial complaints and lawsuits," Bucher wrote. "Their goal is to damage her politically and financially, and thereby increase Trung's chances of winning the seat next year."
One of Nguyen's biggest election supporters is former Westminster city councilman Tony Lam, the first Vietnamese-American to win public office in Orange County. He agrees with Grindle and Bucher that Nguyen's independence from the likes of Schroeder and Tran explains why she's so dangerous.
"They got bitter because they got beaten," Lam says. "They want to drain her financial resources so she doesn't have a chance to win re-election against the machinery of Van Tran. He wants to be the mafia boss. They want her to kowtow to them, and she is too independent—and that is why I support her. I am sick and tired of the political bullshit by these people. They have to learn this is America, not Vietnam."
Tran refused to comment about Nguyen, except to point out he's not the only politician who doesn't get along with her. "Those who understand her best and speak the same language don't want to have anything to do with her. It's much more than her versus Van Tran. Politics is a people business, and you have to get along with people. It has to be give and take, and a lot of people say Janet only knows how to take."
For her part, Nguyen chafes at the word "independent," saying it carries a negative connotation. "I'm not sure if independent is the correct term," she says. "I don't agree with my husband 100 percent of the time, so don't expect me to agree with you 100 percent of the time. Because if I agree with you 100 percent of the time, why am I married to this other guy?"
In her first year on the job, however, Nguyen has lived up to that label, refusing to ally herself with either the Schroeder-aligned Pat Bates and Bill Campbell or the libertarian-oriented Chris Norby and John Moorlach. She was the only supervisor to vote against Norby's proposed ordinance allowing medical-marijuana patients to carry county-issued identification cards. Nguyen was also one of the few Vietnamese-American leaders to not actively support last year's headline-grabbing anti-communist boycott of Viet Weekly, a Garden Grove newspaper accused by many Little Saigon residents of supporting communism (see "Red Scare in Little Saigon," Aug. 17). Tran and Trung Nguyen played sympathetic roles in the boycott, but Janet Nguyen went no further than sending bottles of water to protesters. "My approach is a little different than Van [Tran] in my stand on communists," Nguyen says. "My family left [Vietnam] and my uncle was executed and my father was in the concentration camp, so there is no way you can say my family doesn't appreciate freedom. But we're in America and this is a newspaper, and if you don't like what they are writing, don't read it."
Although Nguyen's battle with Schroeder has earned her the most headlines, supporters such as Scott Weimer, president of the Garden Grove Downtown Business Association, say she has quietly but effectively worked to make county government responsive to her constituents' needs.
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