Photo by Jack GouldScott Steiner wants to be an Orange city councilman in the worst way. So badly, in fact, that he could find himself in jail.
Steiner, a 27-year-old deputy district attorney, is one of those right-wing conservative types Orange County seems to breed so prodigiously—and in his case, literally. He's the son of ethically challenged former Supervisor William Steiner.
He lost a November 2000 Orange City Council election and is running in a special June 5 election against Orange resident Carolyn Cavecche. It's a race in which his tactics have outlined him as someone who learned the game from the inside. Take a recent hit piece paid for by Steiner's campaign and mailed out last week to Orange residents, which claimed that "for his commitment to our GOP beliefs, Scott Steiner has been pillaried [sic] by liberal activists like Shirley Grindle."
"The letter says things that are absolutely and totally false about me," said an enraged Grindle, the longtime good-government activist and former Orange County planning commissioner who wrote the county's TINCUP campaign-finance laws and endorsed Cavecche in the race.
Not mentioned in the letter is the allegation that Steiner used his computer and e-mail address at the DA's office for campaign work. That's a crime; if convicted, Steiner could see jail time. The allegation first appeared in the April 30 issue of the Los Angeles Daily Journal. Backing up the Daily Journal's allegations was a cache of documents and computer files taken from Steiner's office computer by an unidentified source within the DA's office.
According to the story, Steiner kept a campaign fund-raising list on his computer as well as e-mail messages in which Steiner asked at least one fellow deputy DA for campaign advice. There were also e-mail messages from DA Tony Rackauckas' secretary to Steiner concerning an endorsement letter from Rackauckas and a campaign photo shoot. The time stamps on the e-mails excerpted by the Daily Journal were all during normal business hours. Steiner also apparently used his computer to compose a campaign-related request—on DA stationery—to ride along on a Costa Mesa police helicopter.
"In conversations with officers in my city, Orange," wrote Steiner in a message quoted by the Daily Journal, "I know that strong support from local elected officials for law enforcement and public safety, including the presence of an airship, is very important."
Steiner refused to comment to the Weekly. To the Daily Journal, he incorrectly reasoned that his "understanding of county policy was that no county equipment should be used [for his campaign] on county time," even though the e-mails excerpted by the Daily Journal were sent within business hours. However, state law—as paraphrased and explained by a legal expert in the Daily Journal—indicates that use of government equipment for private political-campaign reasons is a felony regardless of when it takes place.
District attorney spokeswoman Tori Richards called the Steiner affair "a personnel matter" and refused to comment on what, if anything, the DA's office would do about Steiner. Rackauckas did comment to the Daily Journal, saying he wasn't happy with the records and that he didn't believe people should be using the DA's office to campaign. But Rackauckas has yet to publicly withdraw his endorsement of Steiner from the November 2000 campaign. Ironically, Rackauckas has struggled with this issue himself. During his 1998 campaign for DA, Rackauckas drew fire for improperly soliciting contributions from OC deputy district attorneys.
Following the Daily Journal revelations, county Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a former deputy DA and reserve law-enforcement officer, withdrew his endorsement.
The heat facing Steiner bears a striking resemblance to allegations made against disgraced former county Supervisor Robert Battin. In 1974, Battin ran for state lieutenant governor. During the race, Battin used his county office resources for his state electoral campaign. This didn't escape the notice of the district attorney at the time, who indicted Battin on charges of theft of public funds. In early 1976, Battin was found guilty and later sentenced to 30 days in county jail.
Whether Steiner faces similar penalties is unknown. But worries about potential criminal convictions obviously haven't slowed his campaign. And he's benefited heavily from his daddy's help.
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On Oct. 31, 2000, Bill Steiner gave the Newport Beach-based Airport Working Group (AWG) $15,000 to send out last-minute mailers denouncing Steiner's opponents, including Cavecche, who ended up polling 1,075 votes more than Steiner in the November election. Their reasoning was ostensibly to knock out avowed anti-El Toro Airport candidates in the race, but Cavecche had never before or since taken a position on the controversial airport proposal.
Old man Steiner has also been shaking down his old contributors as an agent for the campaign, hoping to generate money for his son. So far, it has worked handsomely, with Scott Steiner raising more than $46,000 for the June 5 election. That war chest is nearly three times the size of Cavecche's, with 70 percent of it from contributors outside the city of Orange. Randy Smith, one of the most powerful lobbyists in Orange County, said he contributed to Steiner's campaign after being asked repeatedly by Poppa.
"Bill Steiner is obviously very proud of his son," Smith said.
What self-respecting Republican wouldn't be? In a 1994 Orange County Register story, Bill boasted that his son took his Republican roots seriously. While attending UC Irvine, Scott broadcast Limbaugh-like diatribes on KUCI, carried a photo of Ronald Reagan in his wallet, and named his pet fish after Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Reagan.