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O.C. Recall Vote Data Leaked

Registrar Neal Kelley is again shown to have acted with apparent favoritism toward Capo Unified officials while trustees were targeted.

July 25, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Embattled Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley provided information to Capistrano Unified School District officials about the progress of an effort to recall its seven trustees, data he did not share with recall proponents or the public, according to correspondence and the district's former spokesman.

David Smollar, who left the district in June, says Kelley provided the district in November with statistics that showed the recall drive was not likely to make the ballot.

A Dec. 15 e-mail from Smollar to school board Trustee Sheila Benecke mentions the registrar sharing information about the signature tally. Benecke confirmed receiving the e-mail. Eight days after the e-mail was sent, Kelley announced that all the recall efforts had failed.

Kelley last week acknowledged that he had violated state law in a related matter, allowing Smollar and another district official to view signatures on the recall petitions, an admission that prompted the county Board of Supervisors to take steps toward an independent investigation of the registrar's actions.

"It sounds like he made an amazing series of mistakes, all of which seem to have benefited the district," said Tom Russell, a member of the CUSD Recall Committee. "We don't know whether it was just mistakes. We don't know whether it was incompetence. We don't know if it's worse.... We need to get to the bottom of it."

Kelley declined to comment through his office spokesman.

Capistrano Unified, a 50,000-student southern Orange County district, has been hit with a series of controversies in recent years, capped by the intense but unsuccessful attempt to recall the seven trustees over allegations of fiscal mismanagement and misconduct.

A more recent allegation -- that the district created an "enemies list" of teachers, parents, community leaders and others who received pro-recall e-mails -- has heightened the tension. District officials deny the allegation, saying the list was created while the district was investigating whether someone had hacked into its computer system.

Recall proponents needed to gather at least 20,421 signatures from registered voters in the district for each of the seven trustees targeted for recall.

When about 177,000 signatures were turned in to Kelley's office Nov. 8, election officials conducted a sample verification to see if all the signatures would have to be authenticated.

According to Smollar, after the sample count, Kelley told then-Assistant Supt. Susan McGill what percentage of signatures had been deemed valid from the sample. District officials deduced that it was unlikely that there were enough valid signatures in total to trigger a recall election against any of the trustees, according to Smollar.

The e-mail mentions that by using the registrar's sample data, petitions targeting one trustee had failed and the other six were likely to fail.

"The percentages were helpful psychologically for the district, because [Deputy Supt.] Austin Buffum is fairly knowledgeable about statistics and probability, and he immediately deduced that it would be well nigh impossible for a full count to result in sufficient valid signatures," Smollar said. Referring to district Supt. James A. Fleming, he added, "So even though Fleming and the trustees remained nervous until late December, there was a strong sense that the recall would fail."

Smollar said he grew disenchanted with the district and that his "moral compass" was skewed by working for Fleming.

Both McGill and Fleming deny Smollar's allegations involving them.

Attempts to reach Buffum were unsuccessful.

Fleming, who dismisses Smollar as a disgruntled former employee and who last week announced his own resignation, said he learned of the recall drive's results Dec. 23, when Kelley publicly announced that all seven of the recall efforts had failed to qualify for the ballot.

"We did not know anything" until then, Fleming said. "When I found out, I was very surprised because the recall people had seemed so confident."

Kelley, who has been the registrar since August, has said that at the time he had not realized that this was illegal.

The error was not the only one. In a series of e-mails from November to January between Kelley and the district, there are other examples of the registrar apparently making incorrect conclusions about election law.

Most notably, Kelley agreed with Fleming that a special election would cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars -- a key campaign point for recall opponents. In January, after the recall drive had failed, Kelley announced that he had been mistaken and that his office was responsible for footing the bill.

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