Ethics Panel: Nobody's Beating on the Door to Get a Seat

Times Staff Writer

Tucked away in a corner of the state Capitol is the tiny unmarked office space of the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, perhaps the most sedentary committee in the entire Legislature.

Unlike other committees whose power and prestige make membership a sought-after prize, the Ethics Committee is shunned as a dead-end, no-win assignment.

No power. No prestige. No perks. No full-time staff. No glamour. And, no volunteers.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) concedes that he has difficulty finding anybody to serve on the six-member committee because "nobody wants to pass judgment on colleagues."

The situation is the same for Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) in filling the committee's three Senate positions.

"Nobody is beating down my door to fill the (one) vacancy on the committee," he said. "It is always difficult dealing with your peers in a sort of judge-supplicant role and, consequently, we don't find too many members anxious to do that."

One longtime Capitol employee who has observed the committee closely for years said there is a widely held belief that the "Legislature does not like to police itself and probably never will."

In its nearly two decades of existence, the Ethics Committee has dealt with only a handful of cases and has never recommended a substantive disciplinary action against a lawmaker. All of its records fit into a single file drawer.

The committee does not even have a real office of its own. It shares a bit of space in the fifth-floor Capitol office of Assemblyman William H. Lancaster (R-Covina), its current chairman.

There are signs, however, that the committee might be reluctantly prodded to life.

Last week, Orange County businessman W. Patrick Moriarty pleaded guilty to a variety of corruption charges and agreed to be a government witness against politicians who allegedly received bribes from him in the form of money, prostitutes, vehicles, vacation housing and the hiring of relatives.

Moriarty was the leading force behind a 1982 bill that proposed abolishing local ordinances that outlawed the sale of so-called safe-and-sane fireworks, the type manufactured by Moriarty. Then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. vetoed the bill.

There have been allegations that legislators who helped get the bill passed also were engaged in private business dealings with Moriarty and his associates and received special favors, including campaign funds and prostitutes.

Lancaster, the committee chairman, declined to discuss what the committee might do about the Moriarty case.

Before Moriarty's guilty plea, Lancaster had said he did not foresee the panel getting involved in the case because no one has brought a "valid complaint' against any lawmaker, and if one was filed the committee would have to determine whether it had proper jurisdiction over the issue.

A "valid complaint" must be in writing, identify the lawmaker in question by name, set forth allegations of specific conflicts of interest, be signed under penalty of perjury and include a statement that the complainant believes the facts to be true. That is enough to discourage most people.

The committee could act on its own, but a major barrier to proceeding is a provision that forbids the filing of an action "after the expiration of 12 months from the date upon which the alleged violation occurred"--not when the alleged violation surfaced. In the original 1967 legislation, the statute of limitations was six months.

In the cases of some lawmakers identified in press accounts of questionable dealings with Moriarty, most of the alleged actions occurred in 1981 and 1982, which seems to put them beyond the committee's reach but does not preclude action by a district attorney or other law enforcement agency.

Throughout the committee's history, its members have been reluctant to take the lead, preferring instead to let the Fair Political Practices Commission, law enforcement agencies and the courts handle their colleagues accused of wrongdoing.

'Pound of Flesh'

"They don't want to move out in front of the other agencies," Brown said of the committee members. "They want to wait until the other agencies have extracted their pound of flesh, and if those agencies extract a pound of flesh, they don't want to do anything."

And Lancaster put it this way: "The committee is the kind of committee that we hope never has to meet. . . . So, if we don't meet, I think that is good, frankly. Is it a burden? It is obviously something I wouldn't relish to do."

On March 6, Brown quietly replaced two members of the committee--one of whom, Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), had business dealings with Moriarty. The second member, Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), has not been linked to Moriarty.

Brown insisted that removing Roos and Mountjoy and replacing them with Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento) and Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) was part of a normal rotation of committee members.

While the committee seems to have little reason for being, no one in the Legislature publicly supports abolishing it, even though some--such as Brown--believe that political reforms may have made it obsolete.

"I don't want to take the heat for abolishing it," Brown declared. "Can you imagine . . . how many (unfavorable) stories would be written?"

The committee was created in 1967 after voter approval of a 1966 ballot proposition that had the effect of formally establishing a full-time Legislature and also writing into the state Constitution a prohibition against conflicts of interest among lawmakers.

At the time, the prohibition was regarded by some people as a subtle sweetener to make more palatable a controversial provision that gave lawmakers the authority to increase legislative salaries.

Narrow Jurisdiction

To implement the constitutional prohibition against conflicts, the Legislature wrote into law a legislative code of ethics and created the Ethics Committee to enforce the code. In doing so, the lawmakers, perhaps with a degree of self-interest, drew an especially narrow jurisdiction for the panel:

By law, it would confine itself strictly to matters of conflict of interest and, despite its Ethics Committee title, would not deal with issues of ethics and morality.

Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), who serves on the committee and chaired it for several years, said he found the narrow jurisdiction frustrating. "We received letters, but many of them didn't fit into that conflict-of-interest category, so we couldn't proceed," he said.

The code of ethics, which is part of the Government Code, basically prohibits a lawmaker from having a financial interest, engaging in a business or professional activity or incurring any obligation "which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest. . . ."

A 1982 amendment carried by Presley further prohibited any legislator from "appearing, agreeing to appear or taking any other action on behalf of another person (for compensation) before any board or state agency."

This was aimed at precluding a lawmaker from being paid to represent an interest before an entity of state government over which the lawmaker could exert official influence. Exempted were attorney-legislators who practice in courts and before the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board.

Punishment for a legislator who violates the code is a misdemeanor; it is a felony for a person to conspire to violate it. Capitol aides can find no record of anyone ever being successfully prosecuted for violating the code.

Better Left to Voters

And in the Legislature, there is little or no sentiment for expanding the committee's jurisdiction. Lancaster said the judgment of a lawmaker's ethics is better left to the voters who sent him or her to Sacramento.

Presley said he has no plans to carry further legislation to expand the committee's functions.

However, Robert Stern, a former chief attorney for the state Fair Political Practices Commission and now affiliated with the independent California Commission on Campaign Financing, said a code of ethics should be adopted by the Legislature that goes beyond conflict of interest to cover such things as personal behavior and fair campaign practices.

"Most ethics codes . . . suggest that if you have not violated the code, you have done everything that is required," said Stern, who helped write a book called "The Ethics of Legislative Life."

In some cases of a legislator being involved in improper--but not illegal--behavior, the Rules Committee of the two houses has taken action. For instance, a few years ago former Sen. John G. Schmitz (R-Tustin) was stripped of his committee chairmanship for making offensive remarks about Jewish women and abortion advocates. But such cases are rare. The Rules Committee is no more anxious than the Ethics Committee to pass judgment on fellow lawmakers.

Ironically, the Ethics Committee probably received its greatest attention in 1970 in a matter in which it took no action.

The issue involved former Senate President Pro Tem Jack Schrade (R-San Diego), who received a $5,000 campaign contribution from an association of thrift and loan companies less than a month before he helped move an association bill out of committee.

Schrade twice demanded an investigation by the Ethics Committee, whose Democratic chairman turned him down. The issue eventually ended up in the hands of a Sacramento grand jury, which refused to issue an indictment because of "insufficient evidence."

Ousted as Senate Leader

Soon thereafter, Schrade was ousted as Senate leader by Sen. James R. Mills (D-San Diego).

A year later, the committee cleared Assemblywoman Pauline Davis (D-Portola) and her seatmate, Assemblyman Larry Townsend (D-Torrance), of any wrongdoing in the purchase of land in Plumas County at a price an appraiser estimated to be less than 25% of the property's value.

The property seller, a rancher, told a newspaper reporter at the time that he went ahead with the sale to Townsend because he believed Davis might wield "some influence" over the urban lawmaker on legislation relating to farming.

In a 1980 case, Sen. John Nejedly (R-Walnut Creek) was absolved of any conflict for using his tax-paid Senate staff to write letters to government agencies opposing the issuance of mining permits on land near a summer camp in the Sierra that he operated for crippled youngsters.

The committee found no evidence that Nejedly "derived or has reason to expect to derive any monetary gain from the camp." The panel found "clear evidence" that the camp results in occasional costs to Nejedly.

The suggestion that the committee might have become a victim of political reforms is shared by Brown, who cites the passage in 1974 of the Political Reform Act (Proposition 9), which established a detailed system for reporting campaign contributions and disclosing personal financial information aimed at preventing conflicts of interest.

"The committee probably was more important and served a greater function before Proposition 9 and the advent of the Fair Political Practices Commission," Brown said, recalling that before 1974, contribution reporting rules were so "indifferent" that they provided virtually no accurate information.

Called 'Worthless'

One former chairman of the committee, the late Assemblyman Harvey Johnson (D-El Monte), once called the panel "worthless" and said it should be abolished.

Roberti said that when a legislator thinks he or she may be in a potential conflict of interest, the lawmaker usually calls the Fair Political Practices Commission for advice rather than the Ethics Committee.

"I do that myself," Roberti said.

But Presley, a former undersheriff, said that despite the committee's narrow jurisdiction, he believes it serves an important function in much the same way that police department review boards deal with officers who get out of line.

He said that if he were involved in an alleged conflict situation, he would not mind going before the committee "because they understand. They are my colleagues, my peers. They understand my problems whereas some other body may not."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°