Gov. Pete Wilson has signed three bills protecting taxpayers from court damages incurred by elected officials found liable for misconduct.
The bills were inspired by a 1993 case in which a jury found Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich liable for conspiring to influence a judge on behalf of a campaign contributor.
Although the case is being appealed, county lawyers have agreed to pay an unspecified portion of the $1.2 million in compensatory damages that were awarded.
The new laws specify that government entities, like counties or cities, do not have to pay damages if their elected officials get themselves into trouble by actions ranging from intervening in court cases to engaging in sexual harassment to committing a felony.
If an elected official is unable to afford the court costs, public agencies still have the option of making the payments, but the new laws require them to seek reimbursement from the official.
"It serves notice to all politicians . . . statewide that the taxpayers will not be left holding the bag for improprieties," said Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman.
Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) wrote the bill, AB 2467, that most closely mirrors the circumstances of the Antonovich case. It specifically targets cases in which elected officials try to intervene in a judicial proceeding.
"Under this bill, any elected official who chooses to intervene in a court proceeding will do so at his or her own financial risk--not at the risk of the taxpayers' wallets," Bowen said.
Antonovich was not available for comment, but a spokesman said he favored such changes in the law. The new laws, however, will not retroactively apply to the Antonovich case.
"We supported these bills because they would bring an end to frivolous lawsuits against deep pocket entities," said Steven Herbert, Antonovich's spokesman.
Antonovich, a supervisor since 1980, says he did nothing improper five years ago when he telephoned a judge to put in a good word for campaign contributor Krikor Suri and his jewelry business partners. Suri and his associates were involved in a lawsuit against another partner.
Campaign reports show that Suri and his companies contributed $19,000 to Antonovich's campaigns from 1985 to 1989, loaned him $10,000 about a month before he called the judge and made a $3,000 contribution four days before he called.
Two months after Antonovich's phone call, Judge Eric Younger excused himself from the lawsuit, explaining in a deposition that he felt "uncomfortable about the call either having an impact or the appearance of an impact."
Businessman Avedis Kasparian, who opposed Suri in the first lawsuit, then filed a new suit against Antonovich, the county, Suri and his partners, complaining that he lost money because the judge was influenced by Antonovich. A Norwalk Superior Court jury agreed, holding the defendants liable for $1.2 million in compensatory damages.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) wrote one of the other two bills, AB 2508, limiting government liability, but his was broader than Bowen's and would also cover cases of sexual harassment, sexual battery and attempts to inflict emotional distress.
Katz took note not only of the Antonovich case but also of a sexual harassment lawsuit pending against Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden.
"The message I wanted to send was that public officials who screw up cannot expect taxpayers to pay up for them," Katz said. "People who behave unethically and illegally should be held accountable and they ought to pay up first."
The third bill in the package, AB 2522, was written by Assemblyman Paul Horcher (R-Diamond Bar). Although Horcher told a legislative committee it stemmed in part from his concerns over the Antonovich case, he said it more directly addressed wrongdoing by municipal elected officials--such as one city councilman who sued constituents for trying to recall him.
Horcher's bill states that government entities will be liable for neither damages nor defense costs if an elected official is convicted of a felony.