Interior Secretary Cecil B. Andrus yesterday withdrew the nomination of beleaguered aide Robert H. Mendelsohn to be assistant secretary of the interior shortly after a California commission filed suit against Mendelsohn for violating the state's campaign disclosure law.
Mendelsohn, President Carter's nominee for the $50,000-a-year Interior post, requested that his name be withdrawn after word reached Washington that the California Fair Practices Political Commission has filed on $80,684 civil suit against him. The Senate had delayed confirmation hearings until the commission could reach a finding on Mendelsohn's past campaign fund-raising practices. He has worked for the past six months as a $150-a-day consultant in the Interior Department.
"The [commission] had held, in the absence of conclusive evidence," Andrus said, "that the question of Mr. Mendelsohn's knowledge of or involvement in alleged irregularities in 1974 campaign fund-raising should be decided by a court in a civil lawsuit.
"In our Amerisystem, a person is innocent until proven otherwise. I believe strongly that once the fact are presented in a court of law. Bob's innocence will be conclusively established and his good name vindicated."
Andrus added that "pending vindication," he was appointing Larry Meirotto, a deputy assistant, to serve as acting assistant secretary. He said that once the court acts "favorably," he intends to resubmit Mendelsohn's name to the Senate.
Mendelsohn, who gave up his job immediately as of yesterday, charged the California commission with an "Alice-in-Wonderland investigation." Calling the action "wrong and totally unjust," Mendelsohn said he would "seek the justice which only clear exoneration in a court of law can provide."
The most serious of several allegations in the California lawsuit was an accusation that $26,500 in laundered campaign funds was diverted to Mendelsohn's unsuccessful 1974 Democratic primary campaign for state controller.
The suit charges that Mendelsohn negligently failed to properly supervise his campaign committee's reporting efforts and failed to take steps to see that accurate campaign disclosure statements were filed.
According to a 335-page report accompanying the suit, the $26,500 was provided by Transcentury Properties, Inc., of San Francisco, which was then blocked by two state coastal commissions in an effort to build a huge housing development on scenic Bodega Bay. Mendelsohn, who supported the Transcentury application for the project, known as Bodega Harbor, was a member of both commissions. The housing development subsequently was approved.
The California commission, which has power only to file a civil lawsuit, granted immunity from criminal prosecution two alleged principals in the fund transfer to get them to testify.
The commission was unable to decided whether Mendelsohn was part of the conspiracy to launder the money and thus charged him only with negligence.