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Panel Vacancy Sparks Debate of Conflict Issue

Times Staff Writer

The probable selection of George Talin, a founder and major shareholder of the National Bank of Long Beach, as this city’s next harbor commissioner has sparked once again a debate over whether bankers on the commission should bear an extra burden of financial disclosure because of possible hidden conflicts of interest.

Councilman Warren Harwood said Wednesday that he has asked the city attorney’s office to research what can be done to make sure that bankers, whose customers cannot be legally disclosed, do not vote as harbor commissioners on matters that affect clients at their banks.

Commissioners James Gray and Richard Wilson are founders and major stockholders at Harbor Bank, with Gray president and chief executive officer, and Wilson legal counsel and a director. If appointed as expected, Talin would replace Wilson, who is retiring July 1 after 12 years on the board.

There needs to be “a remedy to better allow the community and the council to assure itself that this possible conflict doesn’t exist,” Harwood said. He said he will ask Talin to disclose his bank’s port clients, if there is a legal way to do that, at Talin’s confirmation hearing.

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In response, Talin said he would resign as vice chairman of the board at the National Bank of Long Beach and sever all other bank ties if the relationship creates problems.

Councilman Edd Tuttle also said he wants a serious City Council discussion of the issue.

“The concern I have,” Tuttle said, “is the fact that Harbor Bank has two board members and officers serving on the Harbor Commission and there continues to be the relationship of those individuals wearing two hats, one as a bank member and the other as a harbor commissioner. I think potentially that is a very difficult situation, difficult in negotiating a lease with a port tenant.”

Tuttle and Harwood said they are not accusing anyone of wrongdoing, but their comments infuriated Gray and Wilson, who said they had heard them before.

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State conflict-of-interest law already requires that they not vote on harbor matters concerning their bank clients, and they have abstained on the rare occasions when such a conflict has existed, said Gray.

Find Comments Insulting

If it were legally possible for them or for an impartial third party to identify bank clients they would gladly do so, said Gray and Wilson, who said the two councilmen’s comments were insulting.

“They want to check and make sure I haven’t broken the law,” said Gray. “If they are accusing me of breaking the law, then accuse me, but (they) better darn well be able to back it up because I categorically deny it. It is absolutely untrue.”

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Wilson said he could think of no major harbor accounts among the 10,000 at Harbor Bank. Gray said businesses that do any type of port business make up less than one-half of 1% of the bank’s depositors and have a “minuscule” number of its loans. He said he has never asked a port tenant to use his bank.

Harwood pointed out that attorney Wilson had, in fact, voted on at least two items concerning a port tenant he legally represents during the last year. Wilson acknowledged the votes and said they were “mistakes.” But he said the votes were inadvertent, rendered without discussion on “ministerial” items--permits to build a gatehouse and pave a portion of a tenant’s leasehold--and were of no significance because the commission unanimously approved the work.

The proposal for greater disclosure of financial interests by bankers on the commission also drew the tentative support of Councilman Wallace Edgerton, but he said he did not want to discuss the issue at Talin’s ratification hearing because that would be unfair to that candidate.

Mayor Ernie Kell said the idea of greater disclosure was “intriguing, but I seriously doubt anything would be found. These are successful people and they’re actively in business, and just going around and looking for shadows--I don’t know how productive it is sometimes.”

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‘Reason for Concern’

Harwood also said he would press for an ordinance to prohibit harbor commissioners from soliciting political contributions from port businesses. Kell said that if such solicitations have occurred, “there is reason for concern there.”

Wilson, a major political fund-raiser locally, acknowledged asking port tenants to contribute money to veteran Councilman Russ Rubley in 1982, when Rubley lost to Harwood. But he said the solicitations were both legal and ethical.


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