Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), who has repeatedly denied bouncing checks at the House bank, announced Tuesday that he had in fact written three checks in 1989 that were not covered by funds in his account.
When overdrafts by members of the U.S. House of Representatives were revealed last fall, Lagomarsino produced a letter from the bank's manager assuring him that none of his checks had bounced.
"I am surprised because we'd been told there was no problem," Lagomarsino said in an interview Tuesday evening. "The problem was with the way the bank was run. . . . I'm mad at the way they ran the damned thing."
The congressman said he was never notified by the bank that three checks totaling about $3,000 that he wrote for airline tickets had been held for about a week because of a lack of funds.
"I'm clearly very frustrated to find myself, because of an inadvertent error, lumped in with members who routinely and repeatedly 'floated' large checks for long periods," Lagomarsino said in a statement.
Despite Lagomarsino's explanation, his opponent in the Republican primary, Michael Huffington of Montecito, said the nine-term congressman should end his reelection campaign because he can no longer win.
"Bob should do the right thing," Huffington said in a statement. "He should admit what he did was wrong, apologize to the residents of the 22nd District for trying to cover it up."
Huffington said Lagomarsino "apparently misled the public thinking he would never be found out."
The timing of Tuesday's disclosure could hardly have been worse for Lagomarsino because Huffington, a millionaire with strong ties to the Republican Party, has forced the incumbent into his toughest primary race since he was first elected to the state Senate in 1961.
Lagomarsino is running in a newly created district that includes nearly all of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, but not Ventura County. The congressman recently moved from his Solimar Beach home in Ventura County to a rented condominium in Shell Beach near Morro Bay.
Ventura County's other congressman, Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), acknowledged last fall that he had written two checks for $3,000 and $105.60 that were not covered by funds in his House bank account. They exceeded the money in his account by $174.30.
Gallegly said the overdrafts were "an honest mistake."
But the check-cashing practices of House members have created a public furor since word leaked in October that lawmakers had bounced 8,331 checks during a 12-month period beginning July 1, 1989.
In most cases the bank covered the overdrafts with the no-interest deposits of other members and did not assess a penalty. No public funds were lost through this practice.
But lawmakers closed the bank, and the House voted unanimously to release on April 2 the names of all 355 current and former members who have written unfunded checks.
Lagomarsino said he believes that his three unfunded checks were for two weekend trips from Washington to his Ventura County home in late June, 1989.
He apparently traveled alone on the first trip, and with his wife the next weekend for a July 4 holiday.
John Doherty, an aide to the congressman, said the trips cost an estimated $3,000, two-thirds of that amount reimbursed by the government because the money was for the congressman's official travel.
Doherty said an airline ticket office's check for the first ticket was presented to the House bank on June 20 but held until June 27, when deposits by the lawmaker allowed it to be paid.
Checks for the other two tickets were presented to the bank on June 27 and 28 and paid on July 5, Doherty said. They were covered by Lagomarsino's paycheck, which was deposited directly into his House bank account at the beginning of each month.
Lagomarsino said he wrote about 325 checks a year on his House account and that it usually carried a balance of several thousand dollars.
Lagomarsino, a millionaire, said he had money in accounts outside the House bank and would have covered the checks immediately if he had known of the problem.
The congressman said he did not know that the House bank would sometimes refuse to pay checks until members had deposited enough money to cover them. But after the scandal broke last fall, Lagomarsino said he had contacted Jack Russ, House sergeant-at-arms and the bank manager, to see if he had bounced any checks.
On assurance from Russ, Lagomarsino denied writing bad checks and has repeated the contention. On Tuesday Lagomarsino again cited the Oct. 1 letter from Russ as proof that he did not knowingly abuse his House bank privileges.
Russ wrote to Lagomarsino: "As you have requested, my office has reviewed your bank account records for the period July 1, 1989 through June 30, 1990. These records indicate that the presentation for payment of checks drawn on your account did not in any instance exceed your available balance of funds on deposit with this office."
Russ resigned last week.
* MAIN STORY: Three Cabinet members admit to bad checks. A1