In the spring of 1974, as Richard M. Nixon was being forced from his presidency by the Watergate scandal, disgusted California voters were easily sold on a ballot measure that backers argued would at least clean up politics in Sacramento.
“It will stop the wining and dining of legislators (and) curb the abuses of our political system,” contended then-Secretary of State Edmund G. Brown Jr., who was riding the proposal and the whole issue of political reform to the governor’s office.
The sponsors’ argument in the voters’ official ballot pamphlet began: “Vote for honesty and integrity in California government. . . . It is time (to) put an end to corruption in politics. It is time politicians are made directly responsible to the people--not to purchased demands of special interests.”
Voters approved Proposition 9 by more than 2 to 1.
Too Much Smoke
Now, three FBI investigations later, as a federal grand jury has been convened to hear videotaped evidence gathered by undercover agents against legislators and their aides, it is clear that political corruption still infests the California Capitol.
“The FBI can’t find the smoking gun because the room is too filled with smoke,” commented Walter Zelman, West Coast director of Common Cause.
The abuses persist, the experts say, because of the Legislature’s unwillingness to police itself, the reluctance of state and local prosecutors to investigate and try legislators, loopholes in conflict-of-interest enforcement, delays in reporting of special interest favors, court rulings that have overturned key provisions of Proposition 9, the increasing numbers of career politicians who feel they need public office to support themselves--and just plain human greed.
Brown, now plotting a return to politics, philosophized in an interview: “There’s an inherent problem. This is a long story. . . . You have (demands for) purity and you have pragmatic politics and the two are very hard to wed.”
Like insects that adapt to each new pesticide and become smarter and tougher through evolution, elected officials tend to learn their way around each new political reform. The biological process is called “resistance.”
“Resistance” of legislators to each new reform--a process of political Darwinism--again was evident this last June after voters had enacted the latest generation of reform, Proposition 73. The new law will place major restrictions on the collection and doling out of political money, starting next January. And, even as final votes were being tallied on the measure, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) already was contemplating out loud how to work around it.
“It’s an annoyance, not a problem,” he said of the new “reform.”
“All my life I’ve been involved in trying to over achieve and no matter what the rules are, I’m going to play by the rules and win under those rules. And I guarantee you, as soon as we do perfect a technique of winning with these rules, somebody’s going to come up with the idea that they ought to change them.”
Legislators gradually perfected a way around one of Proposition 9’s most controversial features and symbols: a $10-a-month limit on how much a lobbyist could spend entertaining a legislator. “Just about enough for two hamburgers and a Coke,” Jerry Brown was fond of saying in his gubernatorial campaign.
But the lawmakers and lobbyists found a huge loophole: The new “reform” contained no limit on how much the special interest employers of lobbyists could spend. So out went the $10 lunches. And in came the $1,000-plus trips, honorariums and other gifts.
Some recent examples:
- In 1986, the big New York banks decided it was time to break into California’s lucrative financial market and began throwing huge amounts of money around the Capitol. There were breakfasts for key legislators at an exclusive all-male club and dinners at swank restaurants.
Less than a week before the final vote on a bill granting New York banks access to the state and other favors for California institutions, campaign pledges totaling $200,000 were delivered to the offices of 80 legislators. As the bill’s author, Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra), rose to present the measure on the Assembly floor, two colleagues unfurled a giant poster of simulated dollar bills, bringing lawmakers to their feet in wild laughter. The bill passed on a lopsided vote.
- During a 2 1/2-year period ending in June, AT&T;, the telecommunications giant, laid out roughly $300,000 in lobbying expenses, much of it to entertain and feed lawmakers. That included an eight-day golf vacation last year for Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) and his fiancee at the famous Pro-Am tournament in Pebble Beach. The firm picked up $1,200 in lodging and $2,100 in meals for the couple, paid Roos’ $1,500 tournament entry fee and supplied him with a caddy, a limousine, $180 worth of shirts and sweaters, a cordless phone, a $250 sports bag and a $500 Waterford crystal pitcher.
Roos, an aide insisted, was invited because of his golfing ability--he is a respectable weekend player with a 14 handicap--not his influence as one of Speaker Brown’s political lieutenants. “When people think about golf, they think of Mike,” the aide said.
Tom Jones, AT&T;'s western regional vice president, said the gifts were intended “to build relationships . . . I’m certainly not in any way embarrassed for doing that and I can’t imagine why a public official would be.”
- When officials of the California seafood industry went to the Legislature last year seeking a $1.4-million tax break, they gave the lawmaker who was carrying their bill a gift: a $4,000 oil painting of a tuna boat named “Jerry F” in rough seas. Republican Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando of San Pedro, a tough-talking dentist with close ties to the fishing industry, received the painting and a $2,500 speaking fee less than a week before the bill was scheduled for its first hearing.
“People might say, ‘Gee, I’ll bet the Seafood Institute (gave the painting) to get him to carry our bill,’ ” said lobbyist Rob Ross. “We could have gotten him to carry the bill without the painting. The industry loves this guy.”
- Late last year, shortly after the governor signed into law a bill sought by the pharmaceutical industry, the measure’s author--again Felando--was treated to a fishing trip and week-long New York vacation. The $8,000 cost was picked up by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.
This year, while pressing for another measure to provide the firm with protection from a major lawsuit, Pfizer flew three lawmakers and their guests to Bermuda for a four-day vacation. The tab: more than $17,000. The drug manufacturer also bought theater tickets and limousine services for legislators and contributed $19,000 to the campaigns of 36 lawmakers in one month alone.
- After being rebuffed in four earlier attempts to win an exemption from time-consuming regulatory review, the National Assn. of Securities Dealers got serious. Roughly $920,000 was doled out over a 2 1/2-year period in lavish trips and entertainment for lawmakers and their staffs, particularly members of committees that would decide the fate of its much sought-after legislation.
In Washington, New York City, New Orleans and Sacramento--almost anywhere one of these members showed up--it seemed there was a Securities Dealers executive to pick up dinner, hotel rooms and travel expenses. “They aren’t going to listen to you in their offices,” one source familiar with the lobbying campaign said after the bill’s passage this year. “It’s much easier if you can get them to a bar or restaurant or some kind of event.”
Spending Still Grows
By 1980, six years after voters had enacted political “reform,” special interests were spending roughly $157,000 annually on gifts, travel and honorariums for legislators. And by 1987, the sum had leaped eight-fold to about $1.3 million.
All this information is available to the public because of Proposition 9’s most lasting, positive contribution: its “disclosure” provisions, requiring legislators to report each gift/honorarium over $50, campaign donation and expenditure over $100, outside income and personal loan over $250 and investment over $1,000.
Lobbyists and their employers must report any payment that benefits a legislator personally and any campaign contribution of more than $100. They also must list all bills they are trying to influence.
“It’s (the disclosure system) one of the reasons we know what a mess it is in Sacramento,” said Daniel Lowenstein, a principal author of Proposition 9 and the first chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which the reform measure created to enforce the new law.
Lowenstein, now a UCLA law professor, said “you could certainly claim that (abuses) have gotten worse. But even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean things are worse than they would have been without Proposition 9. It’s hard for people to remember what it was like back when all this money was sloshing around and no one knew in detail how much or where it was coming from.”
Clues in Disclosure
Disclosure statements provide clues to help people trace how a specific bill has been passed.
For instance, there was this “battle of the ankle” five years ago between medical doctors and podiatrists: For years, the podiatrists had sought legislation, opposed by the California Medical Assn., that would allow them to perform surgery above the ankle. But they had contributed only token amounts of money to legislators’ campaigns, while the CMA had been one of the state’s biggest political donors. Finally, the podiatrists dumped $90,000 into campaign coffers within a six-month period and the legislators passed their bill.
“Even in cases where the FBI now is coming around investigating, most of the money has been reported,” said former Gov. Brown, who helped to write Proposition 9.
So if politicians can be watched accepting favors while doing favors in return, why do they do it? The main answer, political strategists say, is because voters are so jaded--especially after Watergate--that they half expect politicians to be corrupt anyway and passively shrug off each sorry situation.
“These free trips and things, voters take with a grain of salt,” said Richard Ross, who has run nearly 70 campaigns for Democratic legislators. Unless a quid pro quo-- such as sponsoring a bill for money--can be proven indisputably, “the voters just don’t want to hear about it,” Ross continued. “And people are tired of negative campaigning. That’s a fact.”
Attempts to Exploit
However, a few days after Ross talked to The Times, he launched negative campaigns on behalf of three Assembly Democrats seeking to exploit the “scandal” swirling around Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale. Voters were mailed letters tying GOP candidates to Nolan--"the same person currently being investigated by the FBI"--and also calling attention to the apparent illegal campaign use of state computers by public employees under Nolan’s supervision.
Still, veteran GOP consultant Sal Russo agreed with Ross’ initial comments. “The public is sort of cynical about politicians in terms of low grade, nefarious activities, figuring that sort of thing goes on in Sacramento,” he said. “Somebody who does a major job of stinking up the place with lobbyists goes beyond the acceptance level, but I’m not sure this (FBI case) has gone that far.”
If voters are not interested in what the mountains of disclosure statements show, politicians definitely are. They scrutinize the records in search of new sources of money, or to assess how a certain special interest is treating them compared to a colleague.
“People expected that simply reporting contributions would be sufficient to clean up the process. That is a view I don’t share and never have,” said Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-La Habra), lead author of the latest “reform,” Proposition 73. “Frankly, disclosure made it easier for candidates, particularly incumbent legislators, to know who was contributing and to assemble a list of potential contributors.”
Who Is Giving?
Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), a co-author of Proposition 73 and one of the legislators now under investigation, once explained to a Times reporter how he studied the disclosure statements to learn which special interests were giving out honorariums. “You start asking yourself, ‘If they gave to this guy or gal, why didn’t they give to me?’ ” he said.
One veteran lobbyist, who asked not to be identified by name, asserted: “Legislative bribery was legalized in 1974 when the voters approved Proposition 9. All you’ve got to do is report it.”
But a major weakness in the reporting law that benefits legislators who abuse the system is that they do not have to disclose their special interest payments and gifts in a timely fashion.
Only once a year are officeholders required to disclose their financial interests, plus the receipt of gifts, honorariums and free travel. Organizations that lobby the Legislature, however, must report quarterly.
The requirements are only slightly more stringent for campaign contributions, which must be reported semi-annually, except during election years, when two additional reports are due just before voting day.
“The only public information you can get is dated,” complained political consultant Ross. “Someone takes a gift this year and you’ll not see it (disclosed) until next March and that’s 20 months before the next election.”
The brazen attitude of many legislators toward money and gifts also results from their holding relatively “safe” seats, the product of a cozy 1982 reapportionment that protected incumbents. If reelection races were more competitive, legislators “would be more careful about fund-raising and voters would be given a bigger voice in what’s going on,” said one lobbyist, himself a former lawmaker.
A Full-Time Job
Also blamed for the contributions “arms race” is the full-time legislative operation voters approved as another kind of “reform” 22 years ago. This gradually has resulted in fewer “citizen politicians” and far more “career politicians” being elected to the Legislature. And, unlike the legislators of old, who could fall back on private sector occupations, the new breed of lawmaker tends to rely on public office for a living.
“Many literally need to get reelected to support themselves,” said former Assemblyman William Bagley, now chairman of the state Transportation Commission.
Also, Bagley noted, the number of legislative employees has grown dramatically in recent years. “What’s wrong with it,” he said, “is that you now have staff falling all over each other making work for themselves and, merely by the law of mathematics, looking for campaign contributions.”
In fact, five present and former legislative aides are targets of the FBI investigation, along with at least five present and former legislators.
Some lawmakers, in interviews, criticized the leaders of both houses for not establishing behavioral guidelines and imposing discipline. They recalled that a generation ago then-Speaker Jesse M. Unruh periodically would admonish freshman assemblymen concerning lobbyists: “If you can’t take their money, drink their booze, (love) their women and still vote against them, then you don’t belong up here.”
Need for a Code
These days, complained Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), “there’s no training even on how to park your car in the garage. I was shocked. You’re a legislator who comes up here and nobody tells you anything. I think legislators should develop a code of ethics. There’s an ethics code for policemen. There’s the Hippocratic oath for doctors. There’s nothing for legislators.”
An example of what Davis is talking about occurred in the FBI sting. A Senate aide, secretly working undercover for federal agents, was overheard soliciting a campaign donation in return for a legislative favor. The incident was reported to Senate Leader David A. Roberti’s administrative director, Nancy Burt. “I didn’t do anything about it,” Burt said later. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Actually, the Legislature does have a code of ethics, a 17-page document that deals with everything from outside income to divulging secrets. Violations can land a member in jail. But enforcement depends entirely on the will of a two-house Ethics Committee that has no full-time staff, no budget and has not even met in more than three years.
By contrast, the ethics committees run by the U.S. House and Senate each have staffs of nearly a dozen full-time employees. They hold seminars for new members and the House publishes a 275-page guide to proper conduct.
The last time the Legislature’s Ethics Committee took an official action was in March, 1985, when it decided during a 90-minute, closed-door session to stay clear of a political corruption scandal involving several state lawmakers and businessman W. Patrick Moriarty.
“Each person has to (set) his own standards,” said Assemblyman William Lancaster (R-Covina), the committee’s chairman. “Members are responsible to their own constituents. Ultimately, the judgment is up to those people.”
Robert M. Stern, a co-author of Proposition 9 and longtime reform advocate, said the Legislature is incapable institutionally of policing itself. “Legislators have to deal with their colleagues, they have to get their votes to get bills through, and they don’t want to sit in judgment of them,” he noted.
Proposition 9 was supposed to have stepped in where self-policing left off. But the act contains a glaring loophole: It exempts all “elected state officials” from prosecution for violation of a ban against public officials acting on matters in which they have a financial interest.
“We were concerned about the notion of having another arm of government, the judiciary or the executive branch, controlling when a legislator could vote on an issue,” said UCLA’s Lowenstein, who takes personal responsibility for inserting the exemption when Proposition 9 was written. The authors, he said, also realized that legislators and other statewide officials commonly deal with broad subjects that could involve them in constant conflicts of interest.
Now Seen as a Mistake
Yet Lowenstein, citing the latest FBI investigation, said he now believes the exemption “was a real mistake. I don’t think we gave enough weight to how intolerable it is for legislators to be exempted from the requirement. We really do have a problem that affects confidence in government and the image that people have of the state Legislature and probably (its) performance.”
The Political Reform Act promised much more than it ultimately delivered, principally because courts struck down important provisions limiting campaign spending in statewide races and barring lobbyists from contributing to campaigns or advising their employers on contributions.
About the only major provisions that remain intact are the disclosure requirements and the $10 monthly entertainment allowance.
In dissenting on one of those rulings, then-Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird improvised on a line made famous by former Speaker Unruh, declaring: “Once again, ‘money will be the mother’s milk of politics’ with the third house (lobbyists) owning the dairy.”
The Fair Political Practices Commission is increasingly accused these days of dealing timidly with legislators, although the agency is more aggressive when policing local governments. “Enforcement is almost non-existent now,” complained one veteran, well-respected lobbyist, who did not want to be identified by name. “The FPPC is not doing a very good job. The violations they’re looking for are technical mistakes in the reporting system.”
John Keplinger, who was the FPPC’s first public information officer and was its staff director from 1983-86, said “there’s no question” that the agency has become less aggressive over the years.
“In the beginning, it was staffed from top to bottom with extremely bright people who had a clear vision of what their mission was. They were not zealots, as a lot of people claimed,” Keplinger said. “What has happened since then is that the talented people have tended to move on and the agency has become more and more bureaucratized. There are still some good people there, but a lot of people just sit around writing memos. . . .
“Bureaucrats are a little tired, not aggressive by nature and continually watching their behinds. It’s not unique to the FPPC.”
Soon after he arrived in Sacramento in 1986 as Gov. George Deukmejian’s latest FPPC chairman, John Larson--longtime chief lawyer for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors--announced that the watchdog agency would be spending more time educating politicians and less time investigating their activities. “People would rather have a traffic cop directing them than a detective following them,” he said.
Lately, Larson has been reconsidering. “I’ve changed a little bit on that,” he said recently. “We’ve got to be a little more effective at least in our public display of the police side of our activities. . . . Somehow we’ve got to figure out a way to bring to everyone’s attention that we’re serious and we mean it.”
What changed Larson’s mind? “I didn’t expect how things were done here. I sort of had a vision that bills were considered on their merits.”
Reluctance to Probe
Beyond the Capitol, the state attorney general and local district attorneys--no matter who has held these offices--historically have had a great reluctance politically to probe too deeply into the alleged illegal activities of legislators.
“State and local law enforcement people have too much at stake in the legislative process,” said one seasoned lobbyist, referring to the many bills they regularly push or oppose. “Even though they feel things might not be right, they are intimidated from going over there (to the Capitol) and trying to find fault. They owe too much to the legislative process.”
One former top deputy to two attorneys general, speaking anonymously, gave another reason: “Look it, (Atty. Gen. John K.) Van de Kamp is running for governor. You think he can start launching a sting operation against both parties? He’d be in trouble. It’s a club up here.”
Sen. Davis, a former Los Angeles police chief, put it this way: “Would Earl Warren have been elected governor if he had prosecuted politicians (when he was attorney general)? Would Pat Brown? Would Evelle Younger have fared as well? The attorney general should be someone who feels it’s his life’s work and doesn’t want to go on to the governorship.”
Van de Kamp acknowledged in an interview that the state attorney general traditionally has waited for “some hard information” before launching an investigation of the Legislature, “rather than just going on a fishing expedition,” as the FBI seems to have done with its sting. “I’m very troubled by the political corruption situation,” Van de Kamp said, but he noted that proving specific cases in court is difficult.
Correcting the Flaws
Sponsors of California’s latest “reform,” Proposition 73, have high hopes that it will correct some of the deficiencies of Proposition 9.
The new law, starting in January, will limit campaign contributions to $1,000 from each individual and $5,000 from a major political action committee. Elected officials also will be prohibited from accepting a speaking fee larger than $1,000. There now are no limits on the size of contributions or honorariums. Proposition 73 also will ban the transfer of campaign money from one candidate to another--a device long used by legislative leaders to bolster their power.
But the new law says nothing about how much a candidate may spend. And critics note that the unlimited spending coupled with limits on single contributions will result in candidates feeling they have to solicit money year-round, a system bound to benefit incumbents who already have a broad base of financial support. Challengers, on the other hand, are likely to find it even more difficult to raise money.
“We are guaranteed reelection, guaranteed,” Speaker Brown boasted just hours after voters approved the measure, which he had opposed.
Most serious reformers contend that political corruption can only be controlled if limits are placed on campaign spending. And this, in turn, cannot happen under a Supreme Court edict until voters agree to partly finance campaigns with tax dollars.
“That would be the ultimate step,” noted FPPC Chairman Larson, who added that if Proposition 73 fails to clean up politics, he sees no alternative but to provide public financing of campaigns.
Former Gov. Brown recently has been promoting “revitalization” of political parties, contending they then could counterbalance the power of special interests. Referring to the weakening of California’s political parties by crusader Hiram Johnson’s “reforms” three-quarters of a century ago, Brown lamented: “The party hasn’t made a difference since Hiram Johnson fixed it. ‘Fixed it’ in quotation marks.”
Former U.S. Atty. Donald H. Heller, now representing a legislative aide who turned informer after being snared in the FBI sting, has called for creation of an independent prosecutor to ferret out political corruption in Sacramento.
And Davis advocates outlawing honorariums. “I don’t think anyone in the Legislature should take a dollar for speaking--it shows venality,” said Davis. “Who in the hell, once they’re defeated, would give 15 cents to hear one of them talk? There’s no question people are giving honorariums to curry favor.”
“Trying to reform politics is like a football game without goals,” declared UCLA’s Lowenstein. “You move up and down the field trying for first downs. I don’t think anyone ever scores a touchdown. But you have to play hard to avoid being pushed back.”
Wing Fat, who has socialized with hundreds of legislators and lobbyists as proprietor of Frank Fat’s popular restaurant near the Capitol for 40 years, offered this opinion about political corruption: “The whole thing comes from the voters. They must elect honest people.”
Times staff writer Jerry Gillam contributed to this story.