It's somebody else's word; somewhere else's problem. It's what they have in Maryland or Chicago. It's an aberration, not a tradition, in government here.
Now, however, the grubby hand of corruption--bribes with money, prostitutes, vacation retreats, special favors--has reached seemingly deep into government, state and local.
And elected officials have grown fixated over who, if any, among them may fall to its grip--and when.
Here at the state Capitol, the strain grew to be too much Thursday, spilling onto the floor of the Senate where two veteran legislators debated whether one of them may have accepted the use of a prostitute and the other branded the whole subject "a scuzzy affair at the very, very best."
Moriarty Will Testify
The basic situation is that after 18 months of journalistic and law enforcement investigations, W. Patrick Moriarty, the Orange County fireworks manufacturer who is the central figure in the unpleasant saga, pleaded guilty to seven corruption charges, including illegal campaign contributions and providing payoffs in quest of a gambling club license. He has agreed to be a government witness against public officials.
For the most part, two houses of the state Legislature meet just as they always have, busy with the effort of making law. Campaign fund-raisers go on as before and the taverns in the arc of the Capitol still belong each night to the powerful.
But whether for reasons of curiosity or dread, or both, no one can escape the fact that, in the words of one Republican: "It is on the jungle drums up here."
In some quarters the corruption allegations are taken so seriously that a group of youngish, reform-minded lawmakers is secretely planning how to respond and "save this place" if high leaders of the Legislature are dragged down.
To the other extreme, some slough it off as a public relations nuisance in which legislators have and are being victimized.
One thing for sure is the growing sense of political anticipation and tension enveloping the government. What next?
"In any conversation longer than one second, it seems to come up," said Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles).
Banking and other business deals of Moriarty are subjects of investigation, as are his links to the Orange County Board of Supervisors and city council officials scattered around Los Angeles and Orange counties. The focus of his connection to Sacramento is a 1981 bill passed--and then vetoed by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.--that would have prevented local governments from banning the sale of so-called safe-and-sane fireworks, including those produced by Moriarty.
The Times has identified business links between Moriarty and 17 current or former public officials, and reported more than $590,000 in Moriarty political contributions, almost half of which were laundered through others. Dozens of candidates, from Gov. George Deukmejian on down, received laundered contributions, Moriarty associates have alleged. All the public officials said they were unaware of the true source of the contributions.
Three City of Commerce council members are the only elected officials who have been charged with a crime. But there are plenty of officials guessing that it is not over yet.
"There are some nervous people up here," said Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), who has known Moriarty for years and whose district is home to Moriarty's Red Devil fireworks company. ". . . This is one of the biggest scandals, in what--the century? It's a big one."
The most sensational of the disclosures so far comes from former top Moriarty aides who said the fireworks executive provided prostitutes to public officials in an effort to gain political influence. Descriptions worthy of the most cynical soap opera have been offered about lavish, Moriarty-financed Beverly Hills parties where sex was served up along with hot and cold buffets.
Elected officials who supposedly received subsidized sex include Assembly Democratic Leader Mike Roos of Los Angeles and Los Angeles City Councilman David Cunningham, among others. All have either waved off the accusations as "ridiculous," as Cunningham did, or, like Roos, simply refused to discuss the matter.
But, as one might imagine, the accusations provide high-octane grist for Capitol gossip.
"Sex and firecrackers? Whew, that's some combination," remarked one lobbyist.
Such comments almost always are followed by this: "Heard anything new?"
On Thursday, state Sens. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress) and H.L. Richardson (R-Glendora), two old foes quick to grasp a political angle, took things a step further and went public during a session of the state Senate with the kind of juicy, backbiting offerings that previously were whispered only off the record.
It involved a charge by Carpenter, first published in the Register of Orange County and then repeated on the Senate floor, that Richardson, a crusader for conservative causes, may have been involved in Moriarty's sex parties. Carpenter said he had a source for the information but would not disclose it.
"This self-righteous fellow is pretending to be a Moral Majority type, and I think anyone who is that self-righteous deserves the opportunity to be exposed," Carpenter told the reporter originally. On Friday, he insisted that he meant the comment to be off the record.
No Zipper Politics
Richardson said the charges damaged him and his family. He told the Register: "I don't play around with my zipper up here. I don't play zipper politics."
In a letter to Carpenter, Richardson demanded an apology "or I will discuss this matter with you in a very vigorous manner."
Within a moment, as may have happened 100 years ago, a spellbound audience listened as one legislator challenged another to a duel. Sort of.
Carpenter, noting that pistol dueling had fallen from vogue "and that's probably a good thing," said he would not apologize until Richardson was cleared but declared he would box him for seven three-minute rounds at Sacramento's Memorial Auditorium. And, keeping things in perspective, Carpenter suggested they turn the event into a fund-raiser.
Richardson, replying with no humor whatsoever, said he did not want to turn his anger into a public spectacle but said he would meet Carpenter in private "in the near future."
Almost a year ago, Richardson told authorities that Moriarty had asked him to intercede and try to get the corruption investigation dropped on grounds that the families of public officials would be hurt. Richardson had received contributions and business contracts from Moriarty and his companies, but said he was not a part of any wrongdoing.
This week in an interview, a fuming Richardson declared that providing prostitutes under these circumstances "is flat-out corruption."
He said: "That gives (Moriarty) a hook into these guys that he can exploit. Some of these guys up here look like they fell into a tackle box. They have hooks all over them."
But this kind of open roast is the exception in the Moriarty saga so far. The rule seems to be to say as little as possible.
At the sight of a reporter with an open notebook, Republican Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy of Monrovia declared defensively and not altogether untypically: "I'm not talking on the record!"
OK, the reporter suggested, let's talk off the record.
"I'm not talking off the record."
State Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) is joking with his colleagues that "it would be the greatest tragedy of our time if a busload of media people goes over a cliff with four empty seats."
Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco) explains that lawmakers feel "we are all vulnerable to accusations.
"All of us know that there, but for the Grace of God, go I."
This leaves relations between legislators and the press as raw as a poison oak rash.
An exasperated reporter who asked for reaction to Moriarty's guilty plea last week said with a shrug that the only answer he heard "were doors slamming all over the Capitol and car engines revving in the garage."
It was an exaggeration but not without foundation. One assemblyman and his staff told of distracting a television reporter in a hallway last week to permit the unfilmed exit of former Norwalk assemblyman and now lobbyist Bruce Young, who is frequently identified for his dealings with Moriarty.
Pall Settles In
What the legislators will talk openly about is what they see as a pall settling in over the entire Legislature as charges pile up day-in, day-out over the months, reinforcing the worst stereotypes of public officials.
"We all have the same first name, assemblyman or assemblywoman. That's the evil of the whole thing, the involvement of people who are innocent. As for the others, see me when court is over," said Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne).
Certainly the tale is unfolding with grinding slowness.
When the first account of campaign law irregularities appeared in the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1983, astronaut Sally K. Ride had just returned from space, Pope John Paul II had just returned from Poland and Sen. Alan Cranston of California had just beaten Walter F. Mondale in the Wisconsin Democratic presidential straw poll.
Today, the clock ticks away, oh, so slowly on the 90 days that a federal judge has given Moriarty to assist the investigation before his sentencing. He faces up to 35 years in the penitentiary.
So far, legislators report widely different public reactions to developments.
Assemblyman Lloyd G. Connelly (D-Sacramento) said he receives a steady three to four letters a day on the subject, enough to catch his attention.
But Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) insisted for his part: "In 18 months, I haven't had five people ask me about Moriarty who weren't working members of the press."
Brown, who is a trained defense attorney, is one of the few members of the Legislature who professes no concern over Moriarty. Brown received $23,000 in allegedly laundered contributions from a Moriarty associate but, like other recipients, said he was unaware of any improprieties.
"It's certainly not topic A in my operation," Brown said. ". . . It just doesn't occupy the time or the minds of the people doing business. The legislative schedule is on target. It is not a subject that is interfering with people doing their jobs."
At the same time, however, a group of restless, youthful Assembly Democrats has met in private several times to ponder the morass and begin planning in the event that Brown and his leadership are weakened or falls along the way, according to one participant who insisted upon anonymity.
"We're trying to figure a way to save this place," the legislator said. "Nobody else wants to look at this (scandal) for how bad it might be."
Two other sources confirmed such meetings but one cautioned that the most active members of the group numbered only a few. And this source insisted that the secret discussions "shouldn't be described as some coup in the brewing."
For others in the Legislature, the long siege of disclosures, for all of their unpleasant dimensions, has not shaken their expressed optimism that the results will be less than the most anxious among them fear.
Whether this is bluster or confidence is known only to themselves. But their reasoning is based on the known difficulty that prosecutors have in proving such things as bribery, even if some lawmakers are charged with it, and, perhaps more important, the history of other corruption investigations.
In 1978, the headlines blared out: FBI Investigates the Legislature.
Sure enough, for two years the federal government, using the authority of racketeering statutes, had picked through the Capitol. It was a tremendous flop. Two associates of a state senator were indicted but not convicted of anything, and the legislator lost his reelection bid.
The result was to reinforce the notion that state government was more or less clean. After all, the FBI couldn't find evidence to the contrary.
In 1976, there was the case of Dr. Louis J. Cella Jr., who at the time had given more money than anyone else to California political campaigns. He and some associates were convicted of federal charges in connection with Medi-Cal fraud. Prosecutors said he embezzled money from Orange County hospitals and spent it on politics.
Action Against Officials
The state's Fair Political Practices Commission, created in 1975, has taken civil action against officials in 75 separate cases, levying fines totaling $311,200. In one case, that of San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, criminal charges of perjury and conspiracy arose simultaneously. Hedgecock's trial resulted in a hung jury and a second trial has been scheduled.
One legislative staffer, who has seen nearly a generation of lawmakers come and go, said he believes elected officials have grown morally arrogant, not just politically confident.
"Somebody is going to have to take a fall before they clean up this act up here," the staffer said. "And no amount of new law is going to take care of it. It's how people conduct themselves--morally and ethically."