Why Did More Than 95,000 People Vote to Hand Over the County Clerk-Recorder Job to a Convicted Ketchup-Bottle Thief?

The man from R.O.C.C.O. Photo by Keith May

On June 5, the voters of Orange County collectively voted to give another four years in office to incumbent OC Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen. In 2014, after winning his first race, Nguyen became the nation’s first Vietnamese-American clerk-recorder in U.S. history. A moderate Republican, he extended his department’s operating hours to include one Saturday per month—thus making it easier for working people to access the agency’s services—and also supervised the department’s successful digitization of records, thus vastly speeding up the agency’s recording process.

Clearly, Nguyen, who took in 79.3 percent of the votes, was the best man for the job, and he won in a landslide. But sadly, that’s not the big headline coming out of the 2018 Orange County Clerk-Recorder’s race. Instead, it’s this: For some reason, 20.7 percent of voters chose a rival candidate, Steve Rocco, a man whose chief mission in life is spewing conspiracy theories involving global domination, a grocery-store chain, a brand of breakfast sausages, and the Kodak Film Co.

As of press time, no less than 75,208 people voted for Rocco, a former Orange Unified School District (OUSD) trustee who in 2004, after listing himself as an “educator” but otherwise running no campaign whatsoever, used every board meeting to expound on his theories about something called the “Partnership.” (Rocco’s interest in the Partnership apparently stems from his arrest in the early 1980s for allegedly attempting to shoplift several Smokecraft sausages and a few rolls of Kodak Film from a Santa Ana Albertsons.) Despite this, more people voted for Rocco than live in each of the cities of Yorba Linda (67,826), Laguna Niguel (65,448), San Clemente (65,326), La Habra (62,066) and Fountain Valley (57,010). 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: After we went to press this week, Rocco racked up another 20,000 votes, with a total so far of 98,044].

I first met Rocco in 1996, when then-music editor Jim Washburn thought it might be amusing for me to talk to him, given that I was at the time digging into local angles involving the CIA, Reagan-era cocaine smuggling and international arms deals. Rocco showed up wearing his trademark black beanie and handed me a fading copy of his self-published “exposé” on the Partnership, R.O.C.C.O. Beyond the Orange Curtain, which bills itself thusly: “Secret chronicles & public record accounts of corruption, murder & scandal of corporate & political California, written by America’s premier legal technician.” For an hour or so, he ranted and rambled about how his prior shoplifting record was the product of a conspiracy by Albertsons, et al., as well as how the tragic death by drug overdose of the son of one of the grocery-store chain’s executives was actually foul play involving drug trafficking by the company.

Washburn had gotten to know Rocco at various local swap meets, where Rocco would display crates full of vinyl albums, many of which were stamped as property of the Santa Ana Public Library. Of course, whenever anyone attempted to purchase the records, Rocco would shout at the would-be customer, warning him or her that they weren’t for sale. I forgot all about Rocco until 2004, when he beat Phil Martinez, a park ranger and teachers’ union-backed candidate, for a seat on OUSD’s board of trustees. Immediately, the national news media seized on the fact that nobody had a clue who Steve Rocco was. Because there was a famous skateboarder with the same name, many media outlets erroneously assumed he might be the “mystery candidate,” as the news stations dubbed Rocco at the time.

So when I showed up at Rocco’s house to attempt to interview him, several TV producers swooped out of nowhere and, assuming I was Rocco, began trying to interview me. OC Weekly ended up with an exclusive scoop on Rocco, his background and bizarre beliefs. Any doubts as to whether Rocco was a figment of my deranged imagination were firmly dispelled when Rocco finally showed up at an OUSD board meeting in his beanie and dark glasses and carrying serial-killer-style cut-and-paste fliers explaining his Partnership conspiracy theory. He even held an impromptu press conference with an eccentric cohort who claimed Albertsons had hired him to assasinate Rocco. (This caused the Weekly to speculate whether Rocco was actually the living incarnation of deceased comedian Andy Kaufman.)

Illustration and design by Richie Beckman

In the chaotic wake of numerous OUSD meetings during which Rocco refused to vote on any matters and used his time to harangue fellow board members, a group of concerned parents rallied to recall Rocco. But this effort sadly failed to garner enough public support. So the school board voted to censure Rocco, causing him to sue the school district, thus wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. After he failed to win a Santa Ana City Council seat, Rocco went dark for a while.

Then, on Sept. 29, 2008, campus security at Chapman University arrested Rocco for stealing a half-empty bottle of ketchup from a cafeteria. In his infinite wisdom, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas opted to prosecute Rocco to the fullest extent of the law. Although Rocco could have taken a plea deal, he insisted on a jury trial, during which “America’s premier legal technician” attempted to represent himself. Following a brief media circus, Rocco was finally convicted of the ketchup caper in April 2009.

It’s likely Rocco was at Chapman University on the day of his arrest because he was obsessed with Fred Smoller, a professor who produced a video about Rocco’s school board reign titled Recalling Rocco. In a recent interview, Smoller said he was dismayed that so many people had voted for Rocco in his race to become Orange County’s clerk-recorder, but that he wasn’t particularly surprised, since candidates are still allowed to provide their own ballot statements without any official vetting. In order to challenge Rocco’s self-description as an “educator,” a private citizen would have to file a legal complaint against Rocco and deal with all the hassle involved.

Smoller’s interest in Rocco began with the fact that he himself voted for the mystery candidate when he first ran for OUSD’s board of trustees, simply because his opponent described himself as a “park ranger” whereas Rocco claimed to be a teacher. “I believe there needs to be legislation involving a penalty for people who provide misleading ballot statements,” Smoller argued. “On the one hand, it’s funny,” Smoller added. “But on another level, it’s really serious. It’s a perfect case study of what happens when we don’t pay attention to local elections.”

Nguyen, who beat Rocco handily this year, says he was mystified as to how Rocco won so many votes. He said he considered challenging Rocco’s ballot statement, but he ultimately decided against it. “I didn’t want to make a big stink and give him media time,” he explained. “It’s kind of sad that so many people voted for him because people always complain about folks who are elected and don’t do their job. I love what I do and will continue to work harder. That’s why I got 250,000 votes.”

Orange City Councilwoman Kimberlee Nichols, who frequently sparred with Rocco when she served on the OUSD board of trustees, also said she was dismayed at the high voter turnout for her former nemesis. “He has a certain number of followers who vote for him even though he is crazy—just for kicks,” she said. “This pathology in voting is inexplicable. It’s disconcerting on many levels.”

Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).

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