10:00 PM PDT on Thursday, May 20, 2010

By GENE GHIOTTO
The Press-Enterprise

A Lake Elsinore businessman was arrested today on suspicion of conspiring to hide his involvement in the failed effort to recall Lake Elsinore City Councilman Thomas Buckley.

Riverside County district attorney’s office investigators arrested Michel Knight, 49, outside his Temecula Valley Wine Country home about 9:40 a.m.

He has been charged with conspiracy to commit perjury, conspiracy to file false documents, conspiracy to violate campaign disclosure requirements, perjury, filing false documents and violating campaign disclosure requirements in connection with the filing of state-required campaign finance disclosure statements.

Knight, who owns Trevi Entertainment Center in Lake Elsinore, was booked into the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside. Bail information was not available.

Buckley said the arrest confirms “everything that we’ve been saying since the whole process began.

“I’ve always know that he was operating a criminal conspiracy and not a political campaign,” Buckley said this afternoon. “The charges today confirm that.”

Knight is suspected of conspiring with Enelida “Nellie” Caron, who was head of the Committee to Recall Thomas Buckley, to hide Knight’s involvement in the recall effort, prosecutors allege.

Caron, who moved to Florida in February, did not immediately return a call this afternoon seeking a comment on the allegation.

John Hall, spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said that investigators expect to arrest Caron and charge her with the same violations.

“She’s the codefendant in this case,” Hall said.

Recall CAMPAIGN

The recall effort began in February 2009, when Caron announced her intention to recall Buckley at a Lake Elsinore City Council meeting.

Caron accused Buckley of being a corrupt public official and alleged he used his office to illegally receive public reimbursements, donations and stipends to support himself financially.

The recall petition accused Buckley of arranging the city Redevelopment Agency’s purchase of land from a campaign supporter, the Irvine-based Shopoff Group, at nearly double the price the real-estate investment firm paid for the land a year earlier. Buckley denied the allegations.

Recall supporters, who began circulating petitions in March 2009, had gathered sufficient signatures by September 2009 to put the recall question before the voters.

Throughout the process, Buckley had suggested that Knight was bankrolling the recall effort. Knight, while a recall proponent, had denied the accusation.

prosecutors’ probe

The investigation by the district attorney’s office began in August 2009 after then-Lake Elsinore city clerk Debora Thomsen sent letters to the district attorney’s office, the Fair Political Practices Commission and the California Secretary of State’s Office. She questioned the validity of campaign finance forms submitted to the clerk along with concerns about how the signatures on the recall petitions were gathered.

In the campaign form filed by Caron on behalf of the recall committee, the only donations listed were $50 for office supplies and $1,500 for the use of office space provided by Henry Cook, a Trevi employee. Cook told district attorney investigators he never made any campaign contributions to the recall committee.

Investigators later determined that the initial payment for office space was made by Trevi Entertainment, Knight’s Lake Elsinore bowling alley and arcade complex.

In February, district attorney investigators served search warrants at Lake Elsinore City Hall, the Trevi center, the homes of Caron and Knight, and the Wildomar home of John Burkett, a political consultant that Thomsen said accompanied recall proponents to city hall when the turned in the recall petitions.

Two days after the search warrants were served, Knight filed with the Lake Elsinore city clerk’s office a California Form 461, a major donor campaign statement, that listed $14,528 in contributions related to the recall. The form should have been filed on Jan. 31, prosecutors said.

Knight reported, among other things, two cash donations last summer totaling $1,300 and a $115.33 payment for the committee’s phone service. Prior to this statement, there had been no report of monetary donations from Knight.

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