Shine Off California Secretary of State

Five months ago, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (search) could have been considered one of the state's rising Democratic stars, the man who coordinated the 2003 recall election that ousted a governor and then earned favorable national attention on electronic voting issues.

Now that prominence is being battered by allegations of campaign finance improprieties and of mishandling of millions of federal dollars sent to states to modernize voting.

Gone are the flattering media profiles, the suggestions he's a top Democratic contender for the governor's office after Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) departs. Instead, Shelley faces the wrath of federal elections officials and a potential federal audit of his office.

"A couple years ago if anybody had heard of Kevin Shelley, it was in context of election reform," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles. "Now if you hear of Kevin Shelley, it's in terms of corruption probes."

Much of the attention is focused on Shelley's handling of federal Help America Vote Act (search) money. Congress passed HAVA in 2002, steering $3 billion to the states to fund voter education efforts, improve voter access and modernize voting systems after Florida's notorious problems with paper ballots in the 2000 presidential election.

On Monday, a committee of the Democrat-controlled state legislative committee will consider findings that Shelley spent some of the state's first $180 million on contractors who wrote his speeches and attended partisan events to promote him. A December state audit charged Shelley's office with failing to fulfill much of California's responsibility to modernize voting systems, saying he paid consultants for work that had little to do with the funds' mission and avoided competitive bids for services.

"I think the spirit of the law suggested this is not money that would be used for purely partisan purposes," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican who wrote HAVA. Ney has said reports of Shelley's use of the funds may inspire the Republican-ruled Congress to change the law.

Shelley's handling of the money will play out in a fiercely partisan landscape in which a Democrat-controlled Legislature will investigate him in Sacramento while Republican majorities may investigate him in Washington. Schwarzenegger's Republican administration has also joined the fray, studying whether it can wrest control of the election funds from Shelley.

Shelley, 49, the son of former San Francisco mayor and U.S. Rep. Jack Shelley, and recently a leading Democrat in the state Assembly, is bogged down in at least 10 local, state and federal investigations looking into allegations that he helped steer federal voting funds to political operatives, accepted illegal campaign contributions and made frequent verbal attacks on his staff. Republicans have dubbed him the "Secretary of Scream" for his acknowledged temper.

Most seriously, a federal grand jury in Sacramento is investigating $125,000 contributed to Shelley's 2002 campaign by backers who received $168,000 in state grants for a proposed San Francisco neighborhood center that was never built. Shelley has returned the contributions.

The allegations and investigations contrast sharply with the acclaim Shelley received in October 2003 for running a problem-free election that featured 135 candidates and recalled a sitting governor for only the second time in U.S. history.

Only 10 months ago, activists across the United States who questioned the security of touch-screen voting machines hailed Shelley's aggressive adoption of their agenda for backup paper records. Shelley shut down 15,000 electronic voting machines in four counties because they lacked federal certification, and blocked the use of 28,000 more machines until 10 counties adopted tough security to prevent voter fraud.

"It was a very divisive debate, but it won him a lot of fans across the country," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation (search), a nonpartisan analyst of voter trends.

Shelley's staff says he isn't going anywhere soon. Spokeswoman Caren Daniels-Meade said of rumors that he is considering resignation: "At this point, no, he is not. He is still fully engaged in the office and has an agenda of things he'd like to accomplish."

She said Shelley wouldn't comment. He didn't indicate if he would appear at Monday's hearing, although he told auditors in December that he wondered if "other states would fare differently under the scrutiny of a similar review."

Analysts doubt that Shelley can repair his image.

"It would take a comeback of Nixonian proportions to put Shelley back into contention for higher office," said Pitney.