Orange County OKs Strict Ban on Political Gifts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In swift and cordial style, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a virtual ban on political gifts with an ordinance that is being described as the most stringent of its kind in the state.

Adopted unanimously, the measure is the ironic legacy of former Supervisor Don R. Roth, who had hoped to be remembered for his work on a high-speed rail system but instead sparked a landmark reform effort when he was convicted of state ethics law violations in March.

"I can't compliment this board enough," said government reform activist Shirley Grindle, who for years has advocated a gift ban law. "But maybe we ought to thank former Supervisor Roth for being the sacrificial lamb on this issue."

With certain limited exceptions, the ordinance bans all gifts from companies that have done business with the county during the preceding 12 months, or have attempted to influence a county decision during that time. Public officials and those who give gifts face criminal misdemeanor penalties if the law is violated.

The law also applies to lobbyists whose clients are under contract with the county and those seeking government work for their clients.

"It's not what we do or say, it's how we are perceived," board Chairman Harriett M. Wieder said before the vote. "I would hope that this would go a long way in assuring the public that the board has established the toughest and most comprehensive prohibition on gifts in the state."

Bob Stern, author of the state's Political Reform Act, said the Orange County ordinance is clearly the most restrictive regulation in California and perhaps one of the strongest in the nation.

"It takes a scandal to enact laws like this," Stern said. "It's unfortunate that it works that way, but that's what it takes."

Under state law, officials are allowed to receive gifts from all donors, regardless of whether they do business with governments. Only when the gifts exceed $250 in one year is the officeholder required to abstain from voting on decisions involving the donor.

But current state law penalizes only public officials, not the donors or lobbyists who offer the gifts.

The new law comes in the wake of Roth's conviction March 25 on seven misdemeanor counts involving failure to report a housing loan, home improvements, trips, golf outings and other gifts from community members, then voting on matters before the Board of Supervisors that affected the donors.

Roth resigned March 1. He was sentenced to three years probation and 200 hours of community service and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine. Having paid half the fine with some leftover campaign funds last month, Roth has scheduled a fund-raiser next month and is expected to apply profits from that event to what he owes on the fine.

The new law outlaws even the age-old practice of firms or lobbyists picking up meal tabs for county officials and staff members.

Frank Elfend, a local lobbyist whose planning and consulting firm has appeared on Roth's gift lists, said the county decision will make little difference in how he conducts business.

"I would assume that there still would be lunches and dinners, but now politicians would be picking up their own costs."

Elfend said he favored the ordinance if it would "improve the perception of how government works."

More support for the county action came from the local office of Common Cause, the Orange County chapter of the League of Women Voters and the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

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