Year as Transportation Panel Chairman Marked by Controversy : James Roosevelt Still Rides in Fast Lane

Times Urban Affairs Writer

It was another year in the fast lane for James Roosevelt, the crusty businessman and politician who stepped down Monday as chairman of the Orange County Transportation Commission.

During his year as chairman, the commission approved controversial car-pool lanes on the Costa Mesa Freeway and found itself at the center of a brouhaha over a proposed extension of the Garden Grove Freeway through North Tustin.

The agency also has been entangled in difficult negotiations with several cities over plans to convert Beach Boulevard from a traffic-choked commercial strip to a "super street" from the hills of La Habra to the shores of Huntington Beach. And it initiated the first allocation of money earned on bankrolled mass-transit funds for non-transit road improvements in the county's cities.

On his last day as chairman, Roosevelt unexpectedly unveiled what is expected to be a controversial proposal for a unique Orange County freeway authority. It would use part of the increase in property-tax revenues, which occurs when new growth or redevelopment boosts property values, to plan and implement highway improvements. That money now goes to other agencies, such as sanitation, lighting and sewer districts.

But controversy is nothing new for the eldest son of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who shocked President Harry S. Truman in 1948 by attempting to persuade Dwight D. Eisenhower to challenge Truman for the Democratic presidential nomination and who later served as chairman of Democrats for Nixon.

Two months ago, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, both Republican and Democratic congressmen attacked Roosevelt as a money-churning political opportunist who was "preying" on people in a nationwide, fund-raising-by-mail operation.

That description clashes dramatically with Orange County Supervisor Harriet Wieder's comment when Roosevelt handed her the commission chairman's gavel Monday.

'You're Bigger Than Life'

"We love you," she said. "You're bigger than life."

Such wide-ranging assessments are made possible by the many facets of Roosevelt's life.

On one hand, observers say, there is "Jimmy" Roosevelt, the revered 78-year-old lecturer, civic leader and former congressman from Los Angeles who moved to Palm Springs and then Corona del Mar more than a decade ago and became an instant local celebrity. On the other hand, there's the acerbic national political figure whose checkered background in business and politics caused presidential advisers to reject him for the chairmanship of Democrats for Reagan-Bush in 1984.

Married to his third wife and the father of five grown children, Roosevelt remains the county Transportation Commission's only at-large member among seven seat-holders. The panel appointed him in 1981 to represent the public.

Roosevelt, who remains a lifelong Democrat, says he became interested in transportation issues when, like many motorists, he became frustrated with rush-hour congestion as he commuted between Orange County and Beverly Hills, where he had a consulting business for several years.

"I couldn't see why this (congestion) had to be . . . I felt that there must be a better way," Roosevelt recalled.

"He's been very effective," said Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, a member of the commission. "Throughout his career, I've observed that he has this aura of leadership. It's his personality. He likes people, and obviously a lot of people like him. His success at getting around to influential people is based on his famous name, no question about that. But he has charisma, too."

"He's also very quick on the uptake," said Stan Oftelie, executive director of the commission.

James McConnell, the commission's lobbyist in Washington, agreed that Roosevelt is one of the few people who has access to just about anyone he wants to see.

But having access does not always produce results.

For example, Roosevelt recently lobbied Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-Hawthorne), chairman of the House subcommittee on surface transportation, on behalf of legislation that would permit toll roads in Orange County but also would allow the county to use federal construction money for the interchanges that would connect the turnpikes.

Roosevelt failed to gain Anderson's support for the legislation in the House, though Anderson and Roosevelt have been political associates more than 30 years. Anderson said he could not buck opposition to toll roads from Rep. James Howard (D-N.J.), the chairman of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation.

Although Roosevelt's name is still magic in most Washington political circles, his activities as a national political figure and businessman have been controversial.

In 1975, Roosevelt was a partner with convicted swindler Gene W. Conrad in the now-defunct firm Emergency Life Card Inc., which was formed to sell small cards to unions and other groups that would contain members' medical and dental histories.

From 1967 to 1971, Roosevelt served as a vice president and member of the board of directors of the Investors Overseas Services mutual fund empire, which was operated by Bernard Cornfeld and Robert L. Vesco.

With the collapse of the empire, Roosevelt became a defendant in numerous lawsuits that later were settled or dropped. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed charges against him, and he signed a court order pledging not to violate securities laws in the future, ending the case without an admission of guilt.

But the biggest financial and political controversy surrounding Roosevelt involves his 1.5-million-member National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which raised more than $12 million last year through solicitations mailed to senior citizens.

Critics claim that the organization deliberately exaggerates the political threats to Social Security on Capitol Hill and purports to use donations for lobbying activities, even though many House members have never been contacted by a lobbyist from Roosevelt's group.

Mandatory financial disclosures filed by the organization in recent years show that more money is spent on raising funds than on lobbying.

On May 21, on the House floor, several members of Congress attacked Roosevelt.

Rep. Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.) said that at one point she doubted Roosevelt even existed and had great difficulty arranging a meeting with him.

Then Rep. Bob Wise (D-W.Va.) accused Roosevelt of knowingly using false information to mislead senior citizens about an alleged threat to Social Security funds last year.

"That money was never in doubt, and Mr. Roosevelt knew it," Wise said.

Byron agreed and added: "I have to say to former congressman Roosevelt that with a name and a heritage, with the legend of the Roosevelt name, also comes a responsibility, and, in my estimation, I do not feel that he is meeting that responsibility that comes with the memory of his father. . . . "

But Roosevelt remains unflappable.

"That was just six or seven (House) members who always get bothered," Roosevelt said. He added that he had just received a proclamation in the mail from the New York City Council thanking him for his efforts on behalf of Social Security and Medicare recipients.

"It was unsolicited," Roosevelt said.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Friday July 18, 1986 Orange County Edition Metro Part 2 Page 4 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction An article in Thursday's Times about Orange County Transportation Commission member James Roosevelt contained some incorrect biographical information. Roosevelt has been married four times and has fathered seven children. A photo caption with a related story mis-identified Mary Roosevelt. She is the stepmother of James Roosevelt Jr.
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