Block the Vote!

Posted December 20, 2007 in Feature Story

These should be happy, happy days for Paul Odekirk, the dragon slayer, the guy who fought City Hall and won.  

For a full year, the 44-year-old antiques dealer waged a kind of guerilla warfare against Dom Betro, the Riverside city councilman running for reelection in Ward One. To Odekirk, Betro was the bleating embodiment of bad government, a bully who cheerily took money from developers while condemning and seizing lands from local merchants and property owners. 

Throughout the months leading to the June municipal election right up to November’s runoff, Odekirk hectored Betro on all fronts, dogging him at council meetings, pillorying him at noisy public rallies, castigating his every move in mass emails sent out regularly by Save Riverside—the grass-roots group Odekirk helped found. 

Save Riverside was originally created to combat the city’s efforts at seizing private property for commercial use—a policy of which Betro was a key proponent. But it quickly morphed into a frothy, clamorous organ of voter discontent whose leanings were apparent by its unofficial slogan: “Anyone But Betro.” 

Odekirk lived for the day when Betro blighted the land no more. And so on December 4 when Betro at long last conceded defeat to Mike Gardner in the runoff held nearly a month earlier, one would have expected to see his loudest critic dancing on the steps of City Hall. So why, then, when we spoke to him recently by phone, did Odekirk sound so unmistakably blue?

“I’m absolutely disgusted,” the private antiques dealer says. “I feel like my right to vote and my right to have an opinion has been seriously hampered. And I’m also kind of afraid—I’m afraid if I exercise my right to vote, there’s going to be a problem.”

Perhaps Odekirk’s ennui stems from that ancient Chinese curse we hear about, the one that admonishes us to be careful what we wish for. Perhaps Odekirk feels that with Betro gone, he no longer has a reason to get up in the morning. 

Or perhaps—and we’re just guessing here—it has something to do with the fact that Odekirk finds himself suddenly and mysteriously in the crosshairs of the Riverside County District Attorney’s office. 

The D.A.’s Public Integrity Unit—an outfit that typically goes after elected officials for perceived violations of the public trust—has launched an investigation into the decidedly non-elected co-founder of Save Riverside. For reasons that only the D.A.’s office can say—and it’s not saying—investigators have questioned Odekirk, interviewed his landlord and his neighbors, searched his home, and grabbed his voter registration records from the county Registrar of Voters. 

The investigation has thus far robbed Odekirk of his happy feelings of victory, and, more importantly, his Riverside address. As a result of being asked so many questions about her tenant, Odekirk’s landlady evicted him.

“I didn’t feel that I wanted the D.A. hanging around investigating Paul,” says Elizabeth Salamon, who until last month had rented her guesthouse on East Brockton Avenue to Odekirk.

What motivated the Public Integrity Unit to do all this? Again, officials with the D.A.’s office disclosed little beyond acknowledging an investigation into Odekirk is “open and ongoing.” But we’re betting it has something to do with the fact that Chani Beeman, a Riverside Community Police Review Commissioner, filed a complaint with the D.A.’s office alleging that Odekirk didn’t live in the ward where he had registered to vote. In the end, all the whoopla is over a residency issue.

Beeman, incidentally, was listed in Betro’s campaign literature as a major endorser of his reelection bid. Betro, incidentally, nominated Beeman to the board she now serves on. And, maybe not so incidentally, the ward in which Beeman claimed Odekirk didn’t live in happens to be Ward One—Betro’s council turf.

In other words, the D.A.’s Public Integrity Unit is vigorously investigating Betro’s biggest political headache (well, next to Mike Gardner) based on a complaint filed by a Betro ally. But the D.A.’s office insists the investigation isn’t politically motivated. 

“We investigate all criminal complaints,” D.A. spokeswoman Ingrid Wyatt assures us. 

Still, we have to ask: Why is the county District Attorney’s office investigating Odekirk? Minor residency issues are typically investigated by the Registrar of Voters, which rarely treats them as criminal concerns. 

County Registrar Barbara Dunmore didn’t return repeated calls for comment, so we spoke with UCLA professor of law Daniel Lowenstein, instead. 

“Usually, if there’s a sense that someone is registered to vote improperly, the county Registrar would look into it, and, if they concluded the registration was improper, they’d let the person know and it would be handled administratively,” says Lowenstein. “This is certainly unusual. At the very minimum, this seems to be an ambiguous situation because residency amounts to a question of intent—did he intend to live where he says he lived? Because it’s a question of intent, (Odekirk) would get the benefit of a doubt because no one can see into his head.”

Odekirk says that for several months this year up until the day he was evicted, he split his time between two residences—one in Moreno Valley, where his partner lives, and the other at the Brockton Avenue address. He says he rented the house on Brockton because he maintains a business license in the city, and that it was his primary residence. At the time he registered to vote for the November 6 election, he says he was temporarily staying at yet a third address—this one in the 4200 block of 10th Street in Riverside—to give landlady Salamon time to resolve a plumbing problem at the Brockton address. 

“I called the Registrar of Voters and told them about my living situation,” he says. “They told me that I could vote in the election as long as I cast a provisional ballot.”

Both Riverside homes are in Betro’s Ward One.

Salamon confirmed Odekirk’s story from her hospital bed in the intensive-care unit at Riverside Community Hospital, where she’d undergone surgery for a bleeding ulcer.  

Odekirk says that on Oct. 30, Public Integrity Unit investigator Eileen Casey confronted him while he was visiting the Moreno Valley home. 

“She told me that the D.A.’s office knew I didn’t live in Ward One, and that if I voted in the Ward One election, I would be arrested,” he says. “I asked her for her supervisor’s name, and she told me his name was Mike Cabral.”

When Odekirk learned that another investigator, Jeff Chebahtah, had interviewed Salamon, he contacted Chebahtah to ask why the D.A.’s office was upsetting his landlady.

“Chebahtah told me we could resolve the matter by letting him see my (Brockton Avenue) house to prove I lived there,” Odekirk says. “I met him there, and he went through the house searching the cabinets and opening the refrigerator and drawers. I showed him some mail with my name and the Brockton address on it, and he left saying he was satisfied that I lived there.

“I later called Cabral, and he also told me that if I voted in the Ward One race, I’d be arrested.”

Chebahtah couldn’t be reached for comment. Casey refuses to confirm Odekirk’s account. 

“I was conducting an investigation,” she says. “The investigation is ongoing, but I cannot comment beyond that.”

Michael Cabral is the Public Integrity Unit’s sole prosecutor. Reached for comment, he denied that he threatened Odekirk with arrest.

“I did speak to him,” Cabral said of Odekirk. “I told him the exact opposite of that—that it was up to him to decide whether or not he voted.”

Cabral declined to comment further.

Odekirk is convinced the D.A.’s investigation is politically motivated. It’s a belief helped along by the fact that he isn’t the first Betro opponent and eminent domain foe to suddenly find himself in legal hot water. When Riverside resident Ken Stansbury and a group called Riversiders for Property Rights tried to place an anti-eminent-domain measure on the ballot, the city sued them. The group eventually settled with the city, while tens of thousands of dollars later, Stansbury and his lawyers are challenging an appellate court decision against them in the California Supreme Court. 

For her part, Beeman insists her complaint against Odekirk has nothing to do with politics. 

“I’m sure that’s how it feels to (Odekirk), but I’m very active in my community—I’ve been active in political campaigns since junior high, and I believe in the process,” Beeman says. “When I notice something wrong, that someone might be corrupting the process, I take that very personally. This isn’t personal to him, or personal to my efforts in Mr. Betro’s campaigning. It’s my commitment to my community.”

If anyone deserves the benefit of a doubt, it’s Beeman, who over the years has served the city well as a human relations activist. But Odekirk isn’t buying her explanation. 

“If she believes in the process, why wouldn’t she go to the Registrar of Voters with her concern?” he asks. “Why would she go to one of her friends in the D.A.’s office and circumvent the process?”

Odekirk says he hasn’t yet decided whether to hire an attorney. He did, however, send a detailed letter to the ACLU of Los Angeles asking for help, but was told the organization has a backlog of cases and may take a while before reviewing his request. 

He also said he voted in the November election. As of press time, he has yet to be arrested. Dom Betro lost by seven votes.


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