SANTA ANA — Despite questions about his relationship with a lobbyist for a controversial housing development, Supervisor William G. Steiner said he was given assurances Wednesday that his actions were perfectly legal and he still plans to vote when the board considers a zoning change for the project next week.
In an interview, Steiner said County Counsel Laurence M. Watson told him he had violated no laws or regulations and need not refrain from voting on the project because of his dealings with Newport Beach lobbyist Franklyn R. Elfend or his efforts to get the developer to contribute funds to national children's charities.
Two weeks ago, investigators from the Orange County district attorney's office interviewed the operator of the Planet Hollywood restaurant after receiving a complaint that Steiner may have improperly received $5,500 from the Santa Ana establishment, in which Elfend has an ownership interest.
Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Maurice L. Evans would not elaborate on the complaint Wednesday or characterize the inquiry as a formal investigation.
"Our office received a complaint, and the complaint was regarding Supervisor Steiner," Evans said. "We felt that we needed to conduct some preliminary interviews so we could evaluate the complaint. We're doing that now."
Frank DiBella, president of Planet Hollywood, said two investigators asked him about a $500-a-month contract that Steiner had with the restaurant to help attract charity fund-raising events there.
"This thing has been blown so far out of proportion it's sickening," DiBella said.
He said Steiner approached him during a charitable event at the restaurant more than a year ago and suggested a consulting contract. "Steiner was trying to bring business to us. He's involved in a lot of children's charities. It's that simple."
DiBella said Steiner helped bring two fund-raising events to the restaurant and was once paid a $1,500 bonus in addition to his $500 monthly stipend. The relationship ended last December after Steiner was accused by the grand jury of willful misconduct in office, DiBella said, and the supervisor's legal problems left him with little time to attract fund-raisers.
A longtime CPA with accounting offices in Whittier and Santa Ana, DiBella said the investigators asked him about Elfend's relationship with Steiner and the restaurant.
He said he told them that Elfend was a limited partner who had invested $25,000 in the restaurant and that he knew of no relationship between Steiner and the lobbyist.
Elfend said Wednesday that he has known Steiner for many years and given him political contributions since Steiner served on the Orange City Council. The lobbyist, who represents Aradi Ltd., the Los Angeles company trying to build the housing complex, said he believes the district attorney's inquiry was inspired by opponents of the project.
"You have a group of people out there . . . who are very negative on this project, and they have tried to create a negative issue and upset and intimidate people," Elfend said.
Behind the controversy is a picturesque parcel of wooded hillsides that are subject to landslides and subsidence. The parcel is sandwiched between a Catholic abbey and a Hindu monastery in Trabuco Canyon. The abbey has vigorously opposed the project, hiring a lawyer to fight the development.
The parcel has a checkered political history that has ensnared others in controversy and has been passed down through a series of owners since the late 1970s. In 1986, supervisors approved a plan to build 705 mobile home sites on the property.
The current owners, however, want approval for a new plan to build 318 houses on the 232-acre site and sell them for $300,000 to $500,000 apiece.
Steiner and Supervisor Don Saltarelli have had several meetings with representatives of the developers, said Rich Garlinghouse, a consultant for Aradi.
In an interview in July, Garlinghouse said Aradi has used Elfend's close relationship with Steiner to get the supervisor's support for the project.
Garlinghouse said, "Obviously, we want advocates. That's what we need to accomplish our goal. I know [Steiner] likes the project. He's received it well. There's nothing unusual here from our point of view. We know it's not in his district."
"[Elfend's] role is more for strategy purposes. He certainly enjoys the ear of Steiner. He acts as a conduit, not only to the supervisors, but to the community as well," Garlinghouse said.
Steiner denied the project opponents' charge that he has been a "cheerleader" for the controversial Saddleback Meadows development, but he acknowledged that he attended a June 27 meeting in Saltarelli's office where he engaged in a heated debate with VerLyn N. Jensen, an attorney representing St. Michael's Abbey, the project's staunchest opponent.
At the meeting, Steiner said, Jensen offered a proposal to limit the number of units to less than half of what Aradi wants to build.