10:28 PM PST on Friday, February 5, 2010

By JEFF HORSEMAN
The Press-Enterprise

Lake Elsinore City Hall and a consultant involved in the campaign to recall a city councilman were among the six targets of search warrants obtained by district attorney’s investigators, court records show.

Warrants were obtained for City Hall, 130 S. Main St., as well as John Paul Burkett, of Wildomar, according to court records. Another warrant is for an undisclosed location.

Orders sealing five of the warrants were signed Tuesday, while an order sealing the warrant for the undisclosed location appears to have been signed Jan. 28.

Lake Elsinore Mayor Melissa Melendez said Friday she had no knowledge of a search warrant served on City Hall, which is closed on Fridays. Burkett could not be reached for comment.

A recall election against Lake Elsinore City Councilman Thomas Buckley is Feb. 23.

A spokesman for District Attorney Rod Pacheco has declined to comment on the warrants. Lake Elsinore spokesman Mark Dennis said he could not provide any information.

Early Thursday morning, district attorney’s investigators served search warrants on the Lake Elsinore home of Enelida “Nellie” Caron and the Temecula-area home and Lake Elsinore business of Michel Knight.

Caron and Knight are critics of Lake Elsinore Councilman Thomas Buckley, who faces a Feb. 23 recall election. Caron, who launched the recall effort, said investigators told her they were looking into a possible campaign-related felony.

Investigators took three computers from the Caron household in addition to papers that included campaign-finance forms, federal tax forms and the deed to a home Caron and her husband bought in Florida.

Computers were also confiscated from Knight. He said he was told he would get them back in two weeks.

Just under 3,200 signatures of registered city voters were needed to put the recall question on the ballot. Buckley contends that the Committee to Recall Thomas Buckley used paid signature gatherers in violation of state election law.

In late August, then-City Clerk Debora Thomsen sent a letter to the California secretary of state’s office questioning how the recall committee gathered signatures as well as the validity of the committee’s campaign-finance documents.

Burkett, of Petition Management, accompanied recall proponents to the Lake Elsinore clerk’s office Aug. 24 when they dropped off petitions with signatures supporting the recall, Thomsen wrote.

‘message is clear’

A candidate seeking to replace Buckley accused the councilman of being behind Thursday’s raids.

“I think the message is clear: If you would like to run a recall … expect to have your house raided,” Steve Manos said Friday. “The timing of it, I tip my cap to Thomas Buckley, because the timing is exquisite.

“I’m sure Buckley’s behind this, some way, somehow.”

Buckley said he didn’t know about the raids until a reporter called him.

In addition to district attorney’s investigators, federal immigration and customs officials visited Knight’s home Thursday. Knight said the immigrations officers wanted to know his family’s immigration status, and he denounced the raids as harassment.

Opponents of the recall, including Melendez, said the raids point to a lack of integrity on the part of the recall campaign.

“The recall committee, it appears, is guilty of the very same unethical and corrupt behavior that they have accused Councilman Buckley of,” said Melendez.

‘this is not the way’

Melendez said if Buckley’s critics were convinced he was guilty of wrongdoing, they should have gone to the district attorney, noting the recent indictments of four San Jacinto councilmen who are accused of corruption.

“If residents of Lake Elsinore are unhappy with Councilman Buckley’s representation, their opportunity is coming (in the regular November election),” Melendez said. “This is not the way to do it.”

Manos, Jimmy Flores and Phillip L. Mendoza are the candidates who could replace Buckley if he is recalled.

Flores, who is chairman of Lake Elsinore’s Planning Commission, opposes the recall and said he’s only on the ballot to give voters choices. Thursday’s raids help Buckley, he said.

“It clearly shows the true integrity that Mr. Knight has. He has none, and I am sorry to say that,” Flores said.

The operator of two Lake Elsinore restaurants, Flores was accused by Knight of having a conflict of interest when the commission voted last month to revoke a live entertainment permit for Knight’s Trevi Entertainment Center.

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