10:00 PM PST on Monday, November 23, 2009

By DUG BEGLEY and RICHARD K. DE ATLEY
The Press-Enterprise

San Jacinto Vice Mayor John R. Mansperger isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and jump into a community project or open his business to firefighters who need a place to train.

City residents call Mansperger, 41, hardworking and a man whose political career has involved advocating for senior citizen housing and improving public safety.

He is also one of nine defendants named in a 155-count indictment that claims four members of the City Council voted favorably for developers in return for either gifts or illegal campaign contributions.

Mansperger was named in 136 counts, including 40 felonies.

Among the claims in search warrants filed in the case was that Mansperger had relatives and employees of his business funnel money into Councilman Jim Ayres’ 65th Assembly primary campaign fund, 18 months after Ayres failed to get the nomination.

Ayres is considered one of the central figures in the indictment because of how the money was flowing from the 2006 Assembly campaign to other election war chests, including Mansperger’s, prosecutors said.
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Mansperger did not return phone calls left at his business and home Thursday, Friday and Monday.

Mansperger’s attorney, Rajan R. Maline, said reviewing the massive files of the grand jury transcript — more than 3,700 pages — made it difficult to talk about his client’s case.

“I am eager to comment, I really am. But it would be premature at this time,” he said.

2006 campaign

Mansperger was first elected to the City Council in 2006, citing his experience on the city’s Planning Commission.

Mansperger said then his chief concern was “Protecting the senior population of San Jacinto by ensuring an adequate supply of available senior housing. Infrastructure improvements also are a top concern.”

In that election, Mansperger had raised $35,515 six weeks before the election. Mayor Dale Stubblefield, a land-use planner and former city employee running for his second term, took in $30,250. Stubblefield is among those indicted.

Both were elected over five opponents in the citywide race. Four other candidates raised thousands of dollars less, while one raised $24,000.

Mansperger’s largest cash gift came from Ayres’ state Assembly campaign war chest. Ayres contributed $3,250 to the Mansperger and Stubblefield council campaigns.

“They donated to my Assembly race a year ago and I just returned the favor,” Ayres said then.

Family business

Mansperger manages family owned Valley Auto Salvage, located at the busy intersection of State Street and Esplanade Avenue.

Mansperger’s offices at Valley Auto were among the targets of search warrants issued during the 18-month investigation.

The business is part of the San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce, formed in 2008 in part with a founding check of $50,000 from businessman Stephen Russell Holgate.

It became the focus of the investigation for alleged money laundering because it generated several checks to Nancy Ayres, court documents said. Ayres is the executive director of the chamber and also ran a successful campaign last year for a local school board seat.

The salvage yard stretches a city block in each direction, surrounded by fences. Along State Street, a fading fence sign encourages passers-by to support the nation’s troops.

Inside, junker cars are crushed into rectangular blocks. The building that acts as a hub for the business features used engines and a counter where clients and staff work to locate parts.

Chris Thompson, 25, said Mansperger is a good boss who spends most of his time at the yard. Mansperger was not available Friday morning because he was in the back of the lot crushing cars, Thompson said.

Valley Auto Salvage, started in 1972, is an institution in the area.

Firefighters throughout the San Jacinto Valley use the site to train for extracting people from vehicles.

“It’s very helpful,” said Scott Preston, an engineer in Cal Fire’s San Jacinto station. “He allows us to practice our technique by cutting up the cars.”

Though he does not know Mansperger personally, he said Mansperger is a booster of the Fire Department.

“He lets us come in,” Preston said. “He knows that’s one of the things we need, so he does it.”

The Charges

Mansperger was indicted along with the others after an 18-month investigation.

Among the items focused on by district attorney investigators during the probe was a $3,300 contribution made by Mansperger’s wife, Shanda, to the campaign fund for Jim Ayres’ unsuccessful 2006 run for the 65th state Assembly Republican primary. The donation was under her previous last name of Perkins.

The check went into the fund in November 2007, 18 months after Ayres lost.

An investigator said Shanda Mansperger claimed she wanted to give the money to Ayres to keep a promise she made to him during the campaign.

According to a search warrant affidavit, she repeatedly explained that the money was gathered from a combination of a loan from her mother, savings, and money she gained from selling recycled cans and bottles.

Investigators also talked to a man who made a $500 contribution to Ayres and was identified as a tow-truck driver. They found out the man did not work at the auto salvage yard. He told investigators that his brother-in-law, who did work there, gave him the money and asked him to write the check.

Investigators said they found the money originated from Mansperger.

Other donations to the Ayres for Assembly account in November 2007 included a $3,300 contribution from Mansperger’s sister in Texas; two contributions totaling $5,300 from a man who was either the brother or husband of one of Mansperger’s employees; $800 from an employee of Mansperger’s who also was reported to be his nephew; and a combined $3,100 from the mother and brother of Nancy Ayres.

“All of the previously mentioned contributors who participated in making a monetary donation 1 ½ years after James Ayres had lost the primary election are all closely associated with either Mansperger or Nancy Ayres,” Kim Robinson, a senior investigator for the Riverside County district attorney, wrote in the affidavit for the search warrant.

“I believe from my past training and personal experiences that searching Mansperger’s residence and place of business … will support the crime of campaign money laundering,” Robinson wrote.

The Community

Residents of the city are divided over the conduct of the council members, many of whom have been pillars in the community for years.

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