SANTA ANA — For weeks now, speculation about an Orange County district attorney's investigation into the Democratic race for the 69th Assembly District seat has nearly consumed the campaigns of two of the candidates.
Santa Ana Councilman Ted R. Moreno, one of four Democratic candidates in the race, confirms that political rivals--both Democrat and Republican--are accusing him of many misdeeds, from bribery to pressuring businessmen who have projects in Santa Ana into contributing to his Assembly campaign.
The district attorney's office says its probe is centered on two claims: a charge filed in February by Democratic candidate and Latino activist Zeke Hernandez, who alleges that Moreno offered him money to stay out of the race; and a counterclaim by Moreno that Hernandez taped their telephone conversation without Moreno's knowledge in an effort by Hernandez to set up the bribery charge.
Both deny the allegations.
Talk of the probe in this central Orange County district, which includes Anaheim, Garden Gorve and Santa Ana, seems to have superseded any discussion of the issues.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 13, 1994 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Column 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
69th Assembly District--A story Thursday about the 69th Assembly District race omitted the name of Republican candidate Judy Buffin-Edge. She is one of four GOP candidates seeking the party's nomination in the June 7 primary.
And Democrats privately fear that the speculation about the district attorney's investigation may stain the credibility of their field of candidates, even if no charges are filed, and possibly weaken their chances of holding onto the only Orange County legislative seat now in their hands.
The current occupant, Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove), is stepping aside to run for state attorney general.
Publicly distancing themselves from the Moreno-Hernandez dispute are the two other Democratic candidates, Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce President Michael Metzler, who has Umberg's endorsement, and businessman John Michael Patterson, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Santa Ana City Council in 1992.
But Hernandez and Moreno have also turned their anger on Metzler's supporters, primarily Umberg and prominent members of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County. They contend the Umberg camp is supporting Metzler because it does not want a Latino to represent the district.
"It's patently untrue," Metzler responded. The Umberg camp is "very interested in making sure they can return the seat (to Democrats), and they went out and looked for the best candidate they could find, regardless of race, in an attempt to hold on to the seat, and that happens to be me."
Latinos make up about two-thirds of the district's population, with whites representing less than one-fourth of the population, according to a 1993 Times Orange County computer analysis. But because voter registration among Latinos is traditionally low, whites account for more than 70% of the district's voters.
Moreno said he is trying to appeal to all voters and has the backing of several law enforcement associations.
But more significantly, he is about to receive a major cash infusion from members of the Legislature's Latino Caucus, including its chairman, Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles). Moreno refused to disclose the dollar figure, but political insiders estimated Polanco might funnel anywhere from $80,000 to $150,000 to the Moreno campaign--a major boost compared to the $50,000 that Metzler claims to have raised to date.
Moreno's opponents argue that Polanco's drive to elect more Latinos to the Assembly is ironic, since Polanco is backing his chief of staff--who is white--over other Latino candidates to succeed him in his own district. Polanco is running for the state Senate.
Moreno says the political heat is on him because he is a leading candidate in the race. Moreno blames the rumors about him on the Umberg camp and Republicans in general who might fear facing him in the general election in November.
Of the three Republican candidates seeking their party's nomination in the 69th district--attorney Martin Ageson, businessman Jim Morrissey and businessman Virgel L. Nickell--two of the camps dismissed Moreno's fear that the GOP may be fueling the speculation about him.
Mark Q. Thompson, a consultant for Morrissey, said: "We are all not behind the rumors. If I had a choice, I would prefer to go up against Mr. Ted Moreno because he's obviously got a big mouth."
Ageson said he has "been so overwhelmed in my own (race) that I don't know about any rumors."
Moreno lays most of the blame on Hernandez. "Zeke is the one that started it. Zeke is the one that's keeping the fires going," he said, calling the district attorney's investigation "nothing, at this point."
In his initial charge filed with the district attorney's office, Hernandez claimed that Moreno had offered through a third party to raise $10,000 from a group of local attorneys if Hernandez ran for a Santa Ana City Council seat instead of the Assembly.
Hernandez also released a tape recording of a telephone conversation that he said demonstrated Moreno's attempts to intimidate him and force him out of the race. Moreno countered that the tape was illegally obtained.