Citing ambiguities in U.S. campaign finance law, a federal judge has dismissed 13 felony charges filed against two top executives of the Cabazon band of Mission Indians near Indio.
The executives, Mark Nichols and Greg Cervantes, were indicted this year on charges of using conduit donors to funnel thousands of dollars in illegal donations to six Democratic candidates, including President Clinton and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The indictment accused them of knowingly causing the candidates' campaign committees to issue false reports to the Federal Election Commission.
In a 16-page opinion made public Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins said the government had to establish that Nichols and Cervantes "were versed in the minutiae" of election law regulations to prove that they knew they were committing a crime.
Moreover, she said, the federal election law is ambiguous about the definition of contributor--whether it applies to the original source of a contribution or to the person who actually writes a check to a political campaign.
"Under these circumstances," she wrote, "it is proper to invoke the familiar rule that where there is ambiguity in a criminal statute, doubts are resolved in favor of the defendant."
Nichols and Cervantes, who are not tribal members, said through an aide that they were delighted with the ruling. The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, which obtained the indictment against them, said it is considering an appeal.
Each defendant still faces a felony conspiracy charge and two misdemeanor counts of making contributions in another person's name. Their attorneys, Robert Corbin and Stanley Greenberg, are expected to appeal those charges.
Nichols is chief executive officer and Cervantes is special affairs director for the 45-member Indian band, which operates the Fantasy Springs gambling casino on its desert property.
Starting in 1994, the indictment charged, Nichols became active in raising money for political candidates and recruited casino employees to make $1,000 donations to candidates he chose.
In return, the employees were allegedly promised reimbursements from the casino. Cervantes was accused of negotiating similar arrangements with casino workers.
The men denied the charges, contending that the employees gave freely and that the checks they got from the casino were not reimbursements for the donations, but bonuses that many workers receive.
In addition to Clinton and Feinstein, the contributions went to U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Pico Rivera), Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.) and unsuccessful Democratic congressional candidate Steve Clute of Palm Springs.
The government said there was no evidence that any of the candidates or their staffs were aware of the questionable contributions.