State Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), at the urging of his campaign opponent, will return a $1,000 contribution from a fellow legislator under investigation by federal authorities.
Hart, who is seeking the congressional seat held by Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ojai), decided to refund the money this week after a Lagomarsino campaign official questioned a contribution made to Hart in May by state Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier).
The FBI last month named Montoya and four other elected state officials as subjects of a Capitol undercover sting operation, which investigators hoped would snare legislators accepting bribes from special-interest groups.
"Generally our position would be that anyone is innocent until proven guilty," Jerry Seedborg, Hart's campaign manager, said of Montoya. "But if Rep. Lagomarsino wants to make an issue of this, we thought the best way to end the controversy was to just return the contribution."
At the same time, Hart campaign officials challenged Lagomarsino to return contributions they said he has received from defense contractors implicated in the Pentagon fraud scandal.
Federal campaign records show that the Detroit-based Unisys Corp., which has a facility in Camarillo and was named by federal investigators in the procurement scandal, contributed $250 to the Lagomarsino reelection campaign.
Lagomarsino's campaign manager, Ed Bedwell, said the seven-term incumbent would consider returning defense-industry contributions if provided with evidence that the firms are under criminal investigation.
"Tell me which ones are the dirty companies and we'll take a look at it," Bedwell said.
But Lagomarsino campaign officials said Hart should return all other contributions from any official or group implicated of wrongdoing, including a $5,000 donation they said he received from the political action committee of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee for allegedly abusing his office for personal gain.
"We've been attempting to make an issue of where Sen. Hart gets his money," said Bedwell, who wrote the letter to Hart last Thursday attacking the Montoya contribution. "Not only does he take it from outside the district, but he takes it from people currently under probe."
Hart campaign officials criticized Lagomarsino for spending too much time arguing about contributions at the expense of more substantive issues.
"His whole campaign has chosen to focus on these little side issues," Seedborg said. "It's just his way of avoiding the big issues and getting out and debating."
Hart, a legislator since 1974, is challenging Lagomarsino in the 19th Congressional District, which covers northern and western Ventura County and all of Santa Barbara County.