Ex-councilman of Canyon Lake, wife arrested, accused of city credit card misuse

The Press-Enterprise

Former Canyon Lake City Councilman Francis "Frank" Kessler and his wife, Suzanne, were arrested Wednesday, facing a total of 21 counts ranging from embezzlement to theft, including allegations the couple financed cruise ship gambling debts and paid off personal loans using a city-issued credit card.

Riverside County sheriff's deputies on Wednesday morning escorted the handcuffed couple from their home in the southwestern Riverside County gated community.

Frank Kessler was free on $8,000 bail while Suzanne Kessler remained in jail with her bail set at $800,000.

Kessler, a former police chief, is the second elected official in the Inland area to be charged with embezzlement in connection to city credit card abuse. A San Bernardino County judge sentenced former Colton Councilman Ramon Hernandez to six months in jail and five years' probation for charging $5,000 in sex hotline calls and hotel bills to his city credit card.

Two cities, Lake Elsinore and Canyon Lake, suspended the use of credit cards by elected officials after the investigation into Kessler started last spring.

The filing of charges Tuesdayconcluded a four-month district attorney investigation into the Kesslers' actions. "The series of events that have led to these charges are truly a tragedy," district attorney spokesman Michael Jeandron said. "We have made it very clear that public integrity will be and will remain a high priority and we will vigorously pursue cases of public corruption."

Nancy Horton, mayor pro tem of the city of 11,000, said of the arrest, "It was very shocking. It was really unexpected."

Frank Kessler's attorney, Ernest Eady, could not be reached for comment. Kessler has blamed political adversaries and called the incident a "stupid mistake."

The charges

Frank Kessler, 76, is charged with two felony counts; one count of embezzlement by a public official and one count of misappropriation of public funds. He faces four years and eight months in prison if convicted on all counts. Public officials who commit crimes while in office are not eligible for probation, according to California law.

Suzanne Kessler, 58, is charged with the same counts, as well as five counts of theft and 14 counts of bouncing checks. She faces a maximum penalty of 23 years in prison.

The complaint alleges the couple went on a cruise to Hawaii in March and charged $6,239 to Kessler's city card and while on the cruise charged another $2,000 on the card to pay a debt collection agency. Public records showed that the majority of the charges made while on the Diamond Princess cruise ship were gambling-related.

Frank Kessler repaid the city and, in a letter to City Manager Lori Moss in April, said he mistakenly used the city Visa card, instead of one of his three American Express cards, when paying for the cruise charges. He called it "a stupid mistake."

Suzanne Kessler, the complaint says, also wrote $87,000 in checks from an account that had no balance since 2002, and borrowed $880,000 from people whom she told she would pay back from a trust fund that did not exist. The latter resulted in the five theft counts.

One of the alleged victims is Robert Hart, an 82-year-old Canyon Lake resident, who said he loaned Suzanne Kessler more than $850,000 starting in 2005. Frank Kessler reported in his 2007-08 state statement of economic interests form that he borrowed more than $100,000 from Hart and five other people.

Hart said Wednesday that Suzanne Kessler told him she was using the money for various business ventures, including purchasing a Manhattan Beach apartment, but after a few months her repayment checks started bouncing.

Hart said Suzanne Kessler told him she had money she inherited from her father in a trust but had difficulty accessing it because she would get penalized for early withdrawal.

"I believed every word she said," Hart said. "With him being a chief of police and a city councilman, I believed them."

A tarnished ending

For Frank Kessler, a former police chief and 35-year law enforcement veteran, it is the latest step in an incident that brought an abrupt end to a 40-year history of decorated civic and law-enforcement service.

Canyon Lake voters in November voted Kessler, a 12-year councilman, out of office. Eight months earlier, his council colleagues stripped him of his mayor pro tem title and several prominent committee posts.

Kessler served as assistant chief of the Tucson Police Department and police chief in Garden Grove, where he also served as a city councilman for eight years. In 1994, he and Suzanne Kessler permanently relocated to their summer home in Canyon Lake, and Kessler ran successfully for Canyon Lake City Council in 1996, a seat he held until this month.

Some of his colleagues held out hope that the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's investigation would vindicate him.

"It was hard for me to reconcile how long it took the district attorney's office to file the case," said former Canyon Lake Mayor Carl Armbrust, who was also voted out of office in November. Armbrust is a former Orange County prosecutor.

"I feel sorry for Frank and Suzie; they are not stupid people, and I can't imagine them doing this deliberately to avoid the law."

Reach Aaron Burgin at 951-375-3733 or aburgin@PE.com

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