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NEWS ANALYSIS : Roth Link to Bribes Sought but Never Found

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ultimately, Don Roth’s friends stood by him--so solidly, in fact, that the embattled politician was able to conclude a grueling influence-peddling investigation this week without risking jail time or a felony conviction.

Authorities, seeking for the last 11 months to make a case that the former supervisor traded political favors for gifts, sifted through a variety of enticing nuggets: a backdated lease, a scribbling on a lunch receipt, an incriminating remark from an ex-wife, a series of oddly timed votes.

But they never established the link they had been seeking--a Roth associate who might tie a gift to a vote and might offer evidence that the former Anaheim mayor had been bribed. And as a result, they entered into a plea agreement Thursday that left Roth declaring exoneration, even as he admitted having violated state ethics laws seven times and agreed to pay $50,000 in fines and do 200 hours of community service work.

Roth’s lawyers say authorities never established a gift-to-vote connection because it simply never existed. “The facts don’t reveal any kind of linkage, and these guys looked everywhere. There just wasn’t any evidence of influence peddling,” said Paul S. Meyer, defense attorney for Roth, 71, who resigned his post as supervisor on March 1 as a result of the probe.

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But district attorney’s officials, offering their most detailed portrait of the investigation on Friday, said part of the problem came in their efforts to penetrate the personal popularity Roth has built up in the community through more than two decades in public service.

In interview after interview with Roth associates, “these people told us the lunches, trips, gifts, whatever, were given to Mr. Roth to ‘gain access'--that was the typical phrase that was used--to make sure they had his ear,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Guy N. Ormes said.

“But we didn’t have anyone say, ‘This gift was given to Roth in exchange for X,’ ” Ormes said. “A lot of witnesses said they just did this for Roth (in giving him gifts) because they like him.”

Ormes, the lead prosecutor in an emotionally charged case that has already sparked ethics reform measures in county government, made clear in a wide-ranging interview that prosecutors are happy with the results produced.

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Roth admitted in Municipal Court Thursday that he had failed to report home improvements, landscaping work, trips, an $8,500 loan, sports tickets, golf passes and other gifts from local business people and the city of Anaheim, then voted on projects affecting three of the donors. He became the highest-ranking politician convicted of a crime in Orange County since 1980.

Meyer reiterated Friday his contention that the guilty pleas amount to an acknowledgment of “negligence” by Roth in tracking the gifts he received and the votes he cast. But Ormes disputed that contention, saying that Roth “has been convicted of criminal counts, and he is paying substantial fines. . . . What we have here are clearly not technical violations.”

Ormes also said that prosecutors considered many other alleged gift-reporting and conflict-of-interest violations against Roth, but agreed to limit the charges to the seven misdemeanors in order to secure Roth’s plea and to avoid the appearance of “piling on” the allegations.

The deal was finally cemented between Ormes and Meyer about 9:35 p.m. Wednesday after two weeks of what Meyer said Friday were “heated and extensive negotiations” over the types of pleas, fines and other issues.

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“Our job is to get to the truth, and I think we’ve done that. I think we made a good case even if we didn’t find a bribe,” Ormes said.

The 14-year veteran in the district attorney’s office said that without the use of a “sting” operation, the chances of proving in court that a politician solicited or accepted a bribe are slim.

In general, political deals are cut through “winks and nods,” Ormes said. “If we had the very best situation we could get, we’d have a written agreement--'I, developer X, agree to pay you, politician Y, $50,000 if you do this.’ But clearly that’s not going to happen.”

So in order to make a case of bribery, he said, “you need someone on the inside” to cooperate--or, in the parlance of law enforcement, to “roll over” on a suspect. “But for them to crack, they’d have to say, ‘Yes, we bribed him.’ ”

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In the Roth case, the supervisor’s relations with three sets of Southland business people reveal the legal complexities of establishing whether a gift had any influence on the execution of public policy.

* The Presley Cos. of Southern California.

In one of his first official acts as chairman of the Board of Supervisors in January, 1990, Roth made a successful motion to shelve a controversial proposal that would have forced developers to install automatic sprinklers inside thousands of new homes. Roth sent the issue back to staff “for further study,” but three years later it has still not returned for a vote.

Even as the county’s building industry was lobbying against the proposal, Presley workers were knocking down walls at Roth’s Anaheim Hills home and doing more than $15,000 in free or undervalued upgrades that were unavailable to other homeowners in the complex. Roth pleaded guilty Thursday to having failed to report the home improvement in his state gift-disclosure filings.

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When questioned by investigators in the case last year, ex-wife Jackie Roth alleged that Roth told her the work “wasn’t going to cost anything” because Presley officials “don’t want me to be voting for sprinklers.”

It was the most direct allegation linking a gift to a vote by Roth.

But Ormes said prosecutors did not believe they could use the allegation in court because it came from a confidential conversation between a husband and a wife. “We couldn’t get over that hurdle,” he said.

And officials at Presley--who have declined to discuss the issue with reporters--maintained that they were simply being friendly to Roth and had no intention of influencing his votes. (Roth also cast four other votes on Presley projects in the year after the home improvements were made. One of those resulted in a conflict-of-interest charge in Thursday’s plea.)

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Meyer said Friday that any suggestion of a link between the improvements and the sprinkler issue is “ridiculous.”

* Ampco Parking.

On Valentine’s Day in 1991, Ampco President Thomas Barnett hosted Roth, four of his aides and lobbyist Frank Michelena for a $520 lunch party at a French restaurant in Garden Grove. Roth listed the meal as a $20 lunch gift from Barnett on his annual gift-disclosure forms.

Five days later, Roth made the motion on the board to award Ampco a lucrative parking contract at a county facility in Orange.

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“That looks real, real bad when you juxtapose those two events,” Ormes said.

Barnett and Michelena appeared before the grand jury, as did the four aides at the lunch--three of them only after securing immunity from prosecution.

Ormes refused to discuss grand jury testimony, but said that no further evidence emerged during the probe to show whether the lunch was aimed at influencing the vote. The issue was not raised in the plea agreement.

Meyer said meals hosted by lobbyists and politicians have been standard fare for politicians. That does not mean votes were influenced, he said.

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* The Doughers.

The Roth case began last April when The Times disclosed that the Doughers, a Laguna Beach family that owns a dozen mobile home parks, had hosted Roth on three trips to Santa Catalina Island and given him what amounted to an $8,500 interest-free loan through an unusual rental agreement.

It was later disclosed that Roth had the Doughers backdate the rental agreement by some 16 months, raising questions about the supervisor’s assertion that he had always intended to pay the family for his rent at an Anaheim park where he lived between mid-1990 and early 1992.

The “purpose” of one of the trips to Catalina, according to a note scrawled on a business receipt, was to discuss with Roth an upcoming board vote on the rezoning of a Dougher property in Midway City. Roth voted to allow the family to move ahead with a $5-million condominium project, despite an earlier rejection of the plan by the Orange County Planning Commission.

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Ormes said the Dougher case offered authorities perhaps their best opportunity to establish a link between a gift and a vote. But he said that talks with the Doughers about giving them immunity in exchange for their cooperation fell through--he would not say why--and that family members maintained that they never sought to influence Roth’s vote.

“They said they were just genuinely friends with Roth” and that was why they agreed to help Roth out financially and take him to Catalina, he said,

Said Meyer: “Don is a person in the public view who has a lot of different interests. He lives in the public sector, so the people whom he knows--the people who took him to lunches, who took him to golf, who give him gifts--are the same people he sees in his everyday life, in his professional life.”


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