Orange County DA finds ‘no crime’ in review of Assembly decoy candidate allegations

by in News

Local prosecutors say that GOP Assembly hopeful Tyler Diep acted legally when his campaign staffer helped a little-known candidate enter into Diep’s primary race – a move that rivals allege was employed to split the vote.

Diep’s campaign said Thursday that the findings by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office absolve him of the “frivolous and unfounded claims” from his former opponents, who argued Diep acted illegally.

But experts say that running a decoy candidate can be legal in California under some circumstances. And while prosecutors said they determined that “no crime has been committed,” the District Attorney’s office refused to specify if it found that Diep hadn’t run a stealth candidate.

The accusations against Diep, the top GOP vote-getter in the June 5 primary to represent California’s 72nd Assembly District, came from Republicans Greg Haskin and Long Pham, the third and fourth place finishers in the contest.

Their accusations focus on Richard Laird, a first-time candidate who finished last in the race after he raised no money, didn’t campaign and failed to cast a vote in the election.

Laird is the son of Diep’s campaign co-chair, Ed Laird, and public records show that Ed Laird and another Diep campaign volunteer gathered many of the signatures that allowed Richard Laird to enter the race. Records also show that Kimberly Ho, who serves alongside Diep on the Westminster City Council, signed Laird’s nominating papers despite endorsing Diep in the contest.

On Aug. 6, Haskin and Pham submitted a complaint to the District Attorney’s office, asking prosecutors to investigate whether Diep and his campaign conspired to place the younger Laird on the ballot and if such a move violated California election law. On Sept. 6, the District Attorney’s office wrote back, saying it found no illegality, and had forwarded the complaint to California’s Fair Political Practices Commission for review.

In response, Haskin accused the District Attorney’s office of ignoring his allegations, saying he and Pham were never contacted by investigators. Asked about the nature of its review, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney wouldn’t say whether the office investigated the allegations beyond simply reading the complaint.

Richard Hasen, a UC Irvine professor specializing in election law, said that the act of running a decoy candidate isn’t necessarily illegal under state law. Instead, politicians get in trouble when they lie about their involvement on requisite paperwork and campaign finance reports.

In one notable example, Rhonda Rohrabacher, now the wife of U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, pled guilty in 1997 to two felony charges for her role in recruiting a decoy candidate in Scott Baugh’s run for Assembly. She was charged when it was found that she fraudulently filed nominating papers on behalf of the stealth candidate.

“I don’t think there is any differentiation that makes (the Diep) case illegal unless you can point to other laws that are broken,” Hasen said.

“But I also don’t think it suggests that they’re in the clear,” he added.

Hasen said one way that a decoy-candidate ploy could be illegal is if one contender pays the other’s filing fee and neither side reports it.

Candidate Haskin asked the District Attorney to investigate that exact possibility. Haskin noted that Richard Laird’s past financial difficulties suggested it would have been difficult for him to pay the $1,072 candidate filing fee. Richard Laird’s financial disclosure forms show that he earns between $2,000 and $20,000 annually; his fee was paid via cashier’s check, a rarity for campaigns.

Richard and Ed Laird did not return calls for comment, though Ed has previously called the allegations “nonsense.”

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Diep are political allies, each having endorsed the other’s current campaign. Rackauckas’ re-election campaign has received $250 from Diep and $3,900 from Ed Laird’s family.

In August, Rackauckas’ office asked the California attorney general whether it needed to recuse itself because of any possible conflict of interest. But Senior Assistant Attorney General Julie Garland wrote in an email that the connections “do not rise to the level of recusable conflict.”