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Invoke the Statute of Limitations

It seems like years, but darned if it wasn’t just a few months ago that I was actually interested in Ken Starr’s investigation of President Clinton. Then, as month after tedious month dragged by and the time and money expended grew way out of whack to the deeds alleged, I tuned out.

I’ve been at this fixed point for some time now: Even if Starr proves the nub of his case, I don’t care. Sex and lies, if they occurred, don’t get to the heart of the public’s business. The proper response to Clinton, if guilty of what Starr says he did, is to cluck our tongues and wish he conducted his private life more appropriately.

These ruminations lead me to revisit the Scott Baugh case. Drawing analogies between criminal cases is probably the province of the foolhardy. Yet, I can’t resist.

Baugh is the Huntington Beach attorney who, in a 1995 special election, won a crucial seat for California Republicans. His win secured the Assembly speakership for the GOP, and, in fact, Baugh cast the deciding vote that made fellow Orange Countian Curt Pringle the Assembly speaker.

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After the election, it was disclosed that Laurie Campbell, an old friend of Baugh’s, had entered the race as a Democratic candidate but contributed $1,000 to Baugh’s campaign. The only believable reason for her candidacy was to take votes away from a stronger Democratic candidate and enhance the odds of a Republican winning.

Because a candidate contributing to an opponent raised obvious suspicions, the Baugh campaign returned the $1,000 from Campbell. The effort to do that, as well as the extent of Baugh’s previous knowledge of Campbell’s recruitment as a candidate, led to charges against him of perjury and filing false reports.

It boiled down to this: Did Baugh lie and intentionally file false reports to cover up his role in Campbell’s candidacy--a candidacy that was intended solely to skew an important election?

It seems like years that I’ve been following this case. Unlike the Starr investigation of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, however, it actually has been years. The investigation began in 1995, and Baugh was indicted in 1996. The case has hung around ever since.

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Baugh’s supporters say, at most, he made inadvertent noncriminal campaign-filing errors. Baugh’s detractors, including me, have argued that Baugh must have known about efforts to get Campbell to run and that, largely because that particular Assembly seat election was so important, the cynical efforts at “rigging” it shouldn’t go unpunished.

I felt that way in 1995. And in 1996. And in 1997. And here we are in 1998, still without a trial.

This case cries out for a settlement. I can’t claim to have said that first; a municipal court judge used those exact words last December. It seems he wearied of this case long before I. Now, eight months later and we have more legal glitches, the latest coming this week when Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno ruled that Dist. Atty. Mike Capizzi has a conflict of interest and that his office shouldn’t prosecute the case.

John Conley, the assistant Orange County district attorney and the chief prosecutor in the Baugh case, says settlement talks have gone nowhere. “We did talk about a possible settlement, but when one side thinks it’s felony conduct and the other side thinks it’s a technical violation, that, ‘Gosh, anyone could make a mistake like that,’ the minds don’t meet.”

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Allan Stokke, Baugh’s attorney, won’t confirm talks occurred but reiterates that Baugh would acknowledge making campaign-filing errors and is prepared to pay a civil fine for them.

I tell Conley I’ve been a staunch supporter of his prosecution but that, because of its protracted history, am fast becoming a wobbler. I ask, in essence, if the case is still worth it.

“If the charge is perjury in an historic election,” he says, “and if you lose a round, do you just walk away? If it’s a very minor misdemeanor case, and maybe if you lose a round, you do walk away. If this were, hypothetically, an election for city clerk in a small town in Orange County, certainly we wouldn’t devote the same resources, even though the crime might be the same.” He contrasts that with an election that “changed history for California.”

Stokke scoffs at such an interpretation. He says the same kind of alleged violations have occurred in far greater elections, only to be settled by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Baugh supporters have said Capizzi’s office pursued Baugh to curry favor with voters and then became the proverbial runaway train.

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Stokke correctly notes that three judges have expressed varying degrees of displeasure with some of the charges filed. The original indictment was dismissed, but charges were refiled and the guts of the case remain.

Maybe I’ve got Ken Starr on the brain. My heart tells me Baugh’s first election was tainted by cynical political pros. I still find it hard to believe Baugh was a wide-eyed innocent to the shenanigans.

But my head tells me it’s been three years since that election. A case that looked so large at the time now seems to shrink with each passing day, not to mention year.

Were I the arbitrator, I’d force young Mr. Baugh to plead to a misdemeanor and let everyone get on with their lives.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com


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