April 7, 2006

Carson lawmaker says health reports come from foes
Rep. Millender- McDonald denies illness as campaign season and son's possible return to prison loom.

By Matt Krasnowski, Toby Eckert and Nick Green
Copley News Service

U.S. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald strenuously denied Thursday that she was in poor health despite court statements by her son's lawyers last month asking that he be kept out of prison because of her "continuing illness."

"I'm fine," she said in Washington after a House Administration Committee hearing, where she offered several amendments to an ethics reform bill and engaged in spirited debate on the measure. Millender-McDonald, 67, is the top Democrat on the committee.

The Carson lawmaker, whose office reported in May 2005 that she had major surgery but never disclosed her ailment, attributed the reports about her condition to political opponents.

"Is this not a campaign year?" she said.

Her comments were the first she made publicly about her health since her son, R. Keith McDonald, cited her condition last year in a successful bid for temporary release from his 41-month prison term on political corruption charges.

She would not discuss the claims her son made in his court filings.

"I won't get into my personal affairs," she said.

Millender-McDonald's comments came nearly a month after her son's lawyers cited "the continuing illness of his wife and mother" in court papers they filed seeking to extend his release from prison.

In an unusual decision, U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stotler granted McDonald a six-month "temporary emergency release" from incarceration in September -- three months into his prison term -- after his lawyers said he needed to care for his two children, his ailing wife and his mother.

Much of the paperwork to support the request was filed under seal because lawyers stated it included personal and medical information.

McDonald's lawyers asked last month to extend the release until a decision was reached in an appeal of his October 2004 conviction on 10 felony counts. Again, documents supporting the request were filed under seal.

Stotler rejected McDonald's bid, but granted him an additional six weeks of freedom and ordered him to return to prison on April 25.

McDonald's appeal was argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday and the three judges considering the case gave no indication when they would render a decision.

Prosecutors did not oppose McDonald's temporary release when he made the request in September, and last month agreed to allow McDonald 45 days before reporting back to prison. But they opposed granting him freedom until a decision was reached on the appeal.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said he would not comment about Millender-McDonald's statements Thursday.

A message left at the office of McDonald's lawyer, Eric Holder, was not returned.

After a brief telephone conversation, Millender-McDonald's chief of staff, Shirley Cooks, said she would return a telephone call to a reporter on Thursday, but never called back.

McDonald, a former member of the West Basin Municipal Water District board of directors, was convicted on mail fraud, money laundering, bribery and conspiracy to extort charges. He allegedly took $30,000 in kickbacks for his support of a water district pipeline contract. In his role as a lobbyist, he was also accused of paying $5,000 each to three Carson City Council members in exchange for their votes in favor of a bus contract.

Millender-McDonald was not accused of any wrongdoing. She regularly attended her son's trial in federal court in Santa Ana.

In the June primary election, Millender-McDonald faces Peter Mathews, who lost to her in the 2002 and 2004 Democratic primaries. No Republican has filed in the state's 37th Congressional District, but retired aerospace engineer Herb Peters has filed as a Libertarian candidate.

On Thursday, Mathews said he was not part of any effort to spread reports about Millender-McDonald's health.

"There has been no orchestrated campaign on our campaign's part," he said. Mathews said he first learned about Millender-McDonald's alleged health problems from the Daily Breeze several months ago.

Mathews, a political science professor at Cypress College for 30 years whose areas of expertise include American government and urban politics, said voters have a right to know about the health of any candidate for public office.

"If the candidate's health condition affects or possibly could affect his or her job performance, the public has every right to know," he said. "This 37th District needs an energetic congressman who can focus on the district's issues and needs, and not be distracted by any personal problems."

In May 2005, Millender-McDonald's office said she missed most of that month's congressional session after undergoing major surgery. Her office has never disclosed why the surgery was needed.

According to voting records posted on the House of Representative's Web site, Millender-McDonald missed votes from May 10 to June 7.

Congressional Quarterly reported that in 2005 she missed 17 percent of the 669 votes conducted. This year, she has missed only a handful of votes. She did not participate in votes on the three matters considered by the Congress on Feb. 28 and the one vote conducted on March. 1.

Public court records in McDonald's case offer no detailed information about Millender-McDonald's health.

In a court filing submitted last year before McDonald's sentencing hearing, his wife, Lori Blair McDonald, stated she had suffered "hypertensive bleed on the brain, which resulted in my being placed on short-term disability." She reportedly fainted during McDonald's trial.

Legal experts said the granting of McDonald's release was highly unusual, but they also doubted that Stotler would have granted it if there was not a convincing legal case presented. That prosecutors did not oppose the original request also probably factored heavily on Stotler's decision, lawyers said.

But they doubted that prosecutors were reacting to any political pressure in the case.

"It's extraordinarily unlikely that the U.S. Attorney's Office would go along with some possibly fraudulent representation by the son in order to curry favor with a local Congress person," said Los Angeles-based lawyer Gregory Jessner, a former federal prosecutor.

McDonald's health

The health of South Bay Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald has been an issue for almost a year.

Here's a look back at the developments:

May 2005 -- The Daily Breeze reports that Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Carson, underwent major surgery midmonth and will return to the Capitol after the Memorial Day weekend. The then-66-year-old congresswoman considers the surgery a "private matter" and her office declines to provide more details.

June 2005 -- Millender-McDonald returns to the Capitol on June 7 after being absent since May 10, House of Representatives voting records show. In 2005, she is absent for just 17 percent of the 669 votes in the House of Representatives, according to Congressional Quarterly.

September 2005 -- Millender-McDonald's son, R. Keith McDonald, is granted a six-month release from federal prison after serving three months of a 41-month sentence on political corruption charges. Court papers are under seal and show only that the Sept. 20 release was granted to allow him to care "for his ailing wife and mother."

March 2006 -- McDonald, due back in prison after his temporary release last year, is granted a six-week extension that keeps him out of jail. Court papers supporting his request cite "the continuing illness of his mother and wife." Meanwhile, his mother files to run for a sixth term in the 37th District.

April 2006 -- Millender-McDonald denies she is in poor health and says she's "fine." She contends that unspecified political opponents are behind reports of her health problems, but refuses to discuss the statements about her condition contained in her son's court papers seeking an extension of his prison release.

-- Staff writer Nick Green and Copley News Service correspondent Matt Krasnowski