Robert L. Leggett, a former Democratic congressman from Vallejo who left political office amid scandal and bought Kaplan’s Deli in Costa Mesa in 1995, died Wednesday night of cardiac arrest in the pool at his Orange home.
Leggett, 71, retired from Congress in 1979 after eight terms, engulfed in what he called at the time “garbage and gossip” about his affair with an aide to then-House Speaker Carl Albert.
In 1981, Leggett married the former aide, Suzi Park Thomson, and moved to Orange County, where he made renovating and running the deli and restaurant on Harbor Boulevard his passion.
“He came here to retire, but he’s so active and he didn’t want to really retire, so it was my suggestion that we go into some business,” said his widow, Suzi Park Leggett, 67.
“He loved Southern California so much and Kaplan’s so much. We spent all our time there.”
Leggett, a lawyer, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. A liberal, he helped lead the fight against the Vietnam War and the antiballistic missile system. He served on the House Armed Services and Budget committees and as co-chairman of the National Security Task Force. He was also a member of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, chairing its conservation subcommittee.
But Thomson’s introductions of Leggett to her friends at the South Korean Embassy, including three diplomats later identified in congressional hearings as members of the Korean intelligence service, led to a scandal that became known as “Koreagate.”
The Department of Justice investigated allegations that Leggett received money from the Koreans for political favors. Leggett was never indicted.
After leaving Congress, he became a lobbyist for the maritime industry and later a consultant.
But it was in Orange County, Park Leggett said, that her husband felt at peace.
“I could bury him at Arlington National Cemetery but I don’t know, I want him to be near me, somewhere where he could look out and see Kaplan’s, where we used to have dinner,” Park Leggett said. “I remember him as the smartest and kindest man in existence. And he loved it here.”
In addition to his widow, Leggett is survived by three children, Diana McCarthy of Philadelphia, Jeane Denton of Oregon and Robert N. Leggett of Florida, and by three grandchildren.