Absentee voter registration forms began arriving in mailboxes around California last week, and accompanying them were political mailers, advocating or attacking individual candidates or ballot initiatives.

In most cases, the origin of the flyers is relatively clear. The return mailing address for each is listed and the name of the person or group paying for the ad is clearly stated: Mark Kirk for City Council, Hesperia Free Press - Albert H. Vogler, Friends of Russ Blewett.

But not always.

School board candidate Eric Swanson had been targeted in a flyer, citing his history with the California Charter Academy and accusing him of unethical behavior and corruption and the flyer's origin is unclear.

Once California's largest charter school, California Charter Academy shut down in August 2004, and the next spring, an audit prepared on behalf of the California Department of Education said those at the helm had misappropriated as much as $23 million. In September 2007, the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office arrested Hesperia City Councilman Tad Honeycutt, who ran a for-profit spin-off company of CCA, and CCA founder C. Steven Cox on 117 felony charges. The trial will not start until at least 2009.

The flyer attacking Swanson's involvement in CCA, as discussed in the audit report -- he had previously sat on the governing board of three individual CCA schools and his computer services company was paid more than $700,000 after he left the boards -- was sent by Citizens for California Reform, a committee with a return mailing address in Sacramento.

The flyer reprints, in part, an April 2005 article by Hesperia Star editor Peter Day, "Audit questions ethics of CCA's $708,000 deal with Eric Swanson," but goes on to use stronger language, and shifts to quoting a blog post from city council candidate Paul Bosacki's Web site, PaveRoadsFirst.com.

"I got that in the mail, too," Bosacki said. "I was trying to figure out who sent that. It has to be [school board candidate Anthony] Riley; he's the only one who has the money for that."

"People told me that an ad like that ... would probably cost $12,000 or more," Swanson said. "My belief is that it's coming from the teacher's union. First of all, they're the only ones who have the money to send this [and they're] the same group that's supporting [school board candidate] Anthony Riley."

Riley could not be reached for comment Friday evening.

Swanson refutes the ad's assertions that he was under investigation by the San Bernardino County grand jury when he was voted out of office in 2006, that he was one of the three members of the CCA governing board and that the 2005 audit of CCA found he had engaged in unethical behavior.

"I never sat on the three-member board," he said. "I was not being investigated by the grand jury. ... My involvement with the grand jury was as a witness only."

He also said the audit's criticism of a $708,000 transaction between CCA's for-profit spin-off, Educational Administrative Services Corporation, and Swanson's computer services company was mostly directed at EASC.

"There were no purchase orders that were ever given to me, or any contracts," he said. "It's not up to Best Buy or Circuit City to say 'wait a minute, I can't sell this to you unless you send it out to bid.'"

It wouldn't have mattered if EASC had given him a purchase order, according to Swanson, who said the auditors never contacted him or anyone at his company seeking such documentation.

"No official government body ever accused me or my company of any unethical behavior or corruption. They just said that, without the proper documents, they couldn't say there wasn't any."

As for the committee behind the ad, Citizens for California Reform, it was formed on October 8, a few days before the flyer began appearing in Hesperia mailboxes, according to documents filed with the California Secretary of State's office.

The return address on the California Form 410, the Statement of Organization Recipient Committee, filled out for the committee, features the same mailing address on the flyer, and is the address of law firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, LLP. The committee's treasurer, Charles H. "Chuck" Bell Jr. is senior partner in the firm.

At the moment, the Web site for the law firm is just a blank pale green page featuring the words "Attorneys and Counselors at Law" -- at least, to casual observers. In the site's Meta tags, which help search engines like Google categorize and rank Web pages, the firm's purpose is spelled out: "Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, LLP specializes in campaign, election and administrative law and litigation at all levels of government."

But that's not all the firm does. According to Allie Schembra, a spokeswoman for California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Bell serves as the treasurer for more than 50 different political committees.

Who's actually paying for the attack ad against Swanson won't be known until after October 23, when financial disclosure forms are released for political campaigns and committees covering spending between October 1 and October 18.

"The community didn't pay for this flyer. This flyer was paid for by somebody who doesn't want me in there," Swanson said. "They're afraid that I'm going to get on there."

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.