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Law Used in Indictment of Fiedler Needs to Be Clarified, GOP Says

Times Staff Writers

Republican legislators on Thursday generally agreed that legislation is needed to clarify an old law under which Rep. Bobbi Fiedler and an aide were indicted for allegedly offering a $100,000 campaign contribution to coax an opponent out of the GOP U.S. Senate race.

The indictments were dismissed Wednesday by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert T. Altman, who, among other things, said the district attorney and the grand jury had misinterpreted the law.

Even before the decision, Republican legislators--who felt their party was tainted by the controversy--had said they were uncomfortable with the old statute. In the wake of the ruling, they said they will try to overhaul it.

Democrats generally declined comment on what they gleefully regard as a Republican embarrassment.

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Republican legislators are reacting cautiously to the turn of events because, they said, campaign contribution deals, such as the one Fiedler allegedly had offered to state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), long have been considered part of the horse-trading that goes on in political campaigns.

“There is a very fine line between something that is illegal and something that in my mind is a legitimate part of campaigning,” Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno) said. “I think it needs to be defined.”

Altman, in dismissing the charges, said there was inadequate evidence against Fiedler to convict her under the statute, which makes it illegal to pay a candidate to withdraw from an election.

However, in also dismissing charges against Fiedler’s aide, Paul Clarke, the judge cited what he said were weaknesses in the law, saying Clarke would not have violated the statute even if he had done what was charged, because the law did not specifically prohibit offers. The law covers the advance, payment, solicitation or receipt of money but not the actual offer, the judge asserted.

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The only concrete proposal offered Thursday came from Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights), who said he would propose legislation to prohibit a candidate from offering cash to coax an opponent out of a campaign--but only if the opponent put the money in his own pocket. Campbell’s bill would allow a candidate to offer to pay off an opponent’s campaign debt as an inducement to get him out of the race.

“The law is ambiguous, and I think it ought to be clarified,” Campbell said in a telephone interview from his home, where he is recovering from gall bladder surgery. “The outright offer of cash for personal use should be illegal. However, if you are offering to pay off campaign debts, then I think that is a legitimate campaign tactic and ought to be allowed.”

(The allegations against Fiedler of Northridge involved contributions for the purpose of paying off Davis’ campaign debts. There was no suggestion the money was being offered for Davis’ personal use.)

Legislators said such tactics normally are used in a crowded primary, when a candidate often stays in a race simply because it is much easier, while ostensibly still a contender, to raise money to pay off a debt. Offering such a candidate a helping hand with his debt helps clear the field and allows political parties to put the majority of resources behind stronger candidates, they said.

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Unifying Party

“It’s a means of unifying the party both during and after a primary,” Campbell said.

Sen. H. L. Richardson (R-Glendora), a candidate in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, said: “Campaign debt is always a problem and you are always appreciative of people who are willing to help you clean up any debt that you might have. The very fact that someone said, ‘Hey, I’ll help you clean up your debt,’ is not uncommon.”

While saying he would consider changes, Senate Republican Leader James W. Nielsen of Woodland said he would oppose repeal of the current law.

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“We ought not to condone people who by some kind of inducement get someone not to run. That’s not very good law,” he said.

Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette (R-Northridge) said, “If we are going to have a law to prevent primary buy outs, then it should be very specific and have some teeth to it.”

Assembly GOP Caucus Chairman Gerald N. Felando of San Pedro indicated that he would be opposed to the Campbell approach.

He said: “I think the law should be strengthened. Something is wrong with the system when you can offer to buy off someone’s campaign debt to get them out of the race and nothing happens.”

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For his part, Davis reiterated his position that the law was sound but the judge’s ruling was not.


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