The wife of Orange County Assemblyman Van Tran, invisible on her husband's campaign website and largely absent from his public appearances, has found herself thrust into the center of his reelection campaign because of a criminal record just now gaining attention.
His wife, Cyndi Nguyen, pleaded no contest to three misdemeanors in 2004 and was sentenced to three years' probation for helping to concoct bogus medical bills at her paralegal office in Sacramento.
The bills charged for services that were never rendered by her brother, Dennis Nguyen, a Sacramento chiropractor. He pleaded no contest to the felony conspiracy charge and was sentenced to 120 days in jail and five years' probation. He also lost his chiropractor's license.
Five others were convicted as part of a scheme to defraud auto insurance companies of tens of thousands of dollars. What had been a quietly held family matter has turned into a campaign issue as Tran runs for a second term as the Republican assemblyman representing the district that stretches from Garden Grove to Newport Beach. It is also the first hint of scandal for a lawmaker who had previously drawn overwhelmingly positive attention as the first Vietnamese American elected to the California Legislature.
Tran has bristled at the sudden attention paid to his wife, and described their relationship as a "private love story."
The issue began to grow in the final days before the primary election earlier this month when Republican challenger Long Kim Pham recounted the charges on Little Saigon Radio and in an interview in Viet Weekly, which is widely circulated among Orange County's Vietnamese community.
Le Vu, editor of the newspaper, said Nguyen has been the talk of Little Saigon ever since.
"It's an explosive issue," he said. "In our culture, we don't bring out your personal stuff. The Western culture, they do that more."
He added that "Van Tran is very, very popular here" and can probably survive any damage caused by the news. In 2004, Tran won the seat by 16 percentage points in the safe Republican district.
Nevertheless, Tran responded angrily to the controversy, dispatching supporters to appear on the radio to dismiss the charges as too old to matter.
The efforts were for naught. Tran's Democratic challenger, Paul Lucas, picked up the issue where Pham left off.
"I think it raises questions about his integrity and his representation of the district," said Lucas, who carries copies of the criminal records to campaign events.
Tran, in an interview, described the campaign tactic as a "a dirty, malicious character assassination against me and my family that should have nothing to do with the campaign or the issues of the day."
His relationship with Nguyen began, he said, sometime before 2003.
Tran, a former Eagle Scout, was in the midst of his first Assembly campaign. Nguyen, court records show, was in at least the second year as a target of an investigation involving eight law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Livermore police, the California Department of Insurance Fraud Division and the Sacramento district attorney.
Investigators said they used undercover agents to show that the criminal ring would recruit people involved in a traffic accident and coach them on how to file fraudulent insurance claims.
Nguyen's role, they said, was to craft a false statement that could win an insurance payout.
After charging Nguyen with nine felonies and three misdemeanors, the Sacramento district attorney agreed to allow her to plead no contest to the three lesser charges in 2004.
The same year, the couple married, and Tran began his first term in Sacramento.
As recently as this year, however, her services at the paralegal office were advertised in the Chinese Consumer Yellow Pages website. She was listed as "Xinh Cyndi Nguyen, Attorney at Law," although she is not a lawyer.
Tran, 41, said Nguyen, 31, did not know how she came to be listed as an attorney. "They can put anything on the Internet," he said.
Nguyen would not consent to an interview, Tran said, because she was offended that her criminal record was gaining attention.
The operators of the online directory, however, said that the person listed would have provided the title. It is a misdemeanor to purposely misrepresent oneself as an attorney.
Meanwhile, Tran's legislative website chronicles his special initiative showcasing methods that senior citizens can use to avoid insurance scams.
The occasional seminars, dubbed "Scam Stoppers," are advertised as an opportunity to "learn from the experts on how to empower yourself against scams."
Times staff writer Sara Lin contributed to this report.