Paul Bruce Carpenter, the former state legislator from Orange County who championed progressive legislation on a variety of fronts but ultimately served a prison term for political corruption, has died. He was 73. Carpenter died of cancer Thursday at his home in San Antonio, where he had lived since 1999.
During his two years in the Assembly (1974-76), 10 in the state Senate (1976-86) and four years on the State Board of Equalization, (1986-90) Carpenter, a Democrat from Cypress, became an advocate for property tax relief years before California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978.
He wrote legislation establishing a state Superfund to clean up toxic wastes and was among the first to advocate toll roads to relieve traffic congestion in Orange County.
“Paul was a different kind of politician,” said Conway Collis, who served with him on the Board of Equalization from 1986 to 1990. “He played politics the way many people play poker.”
Known as a risk-taker personally as well as professionally, Carpenter invested in repossessed property, new technology and racehorses, and enjoyed climbing mountains.
But his maverick behavior led to trouble in 1986 when, during his successful campaign for the Board of Equalization, he became a target of an FBI sting in which federal agents surreptitiously contributed money to lawmakers in exchange for legislative favors.
Convicted in 1990 of racketeering, extortion and conspiracy for accepting $20,000 from a fictitious shrimp fishery, Carpenter got off on a technicality when a federal appeals court ruled that the jury had not been properly instructed. But he was forced to leave public office.
In a separate case three years later, a jury convicted him on 11 counts of obstruction of justice and money laundering. The well-publicized trial featured one of his closest legislative colleagues, former state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), as the prosecution’s star witness.
“I was arrogant,” Carpenter admitted to a Times reporter in 1993 during the trial, in which he was accused of illegally funneling $78,000 to Robbins through a Santa Monica public relations firm.
Shortly before he was to be sentenced, Carpenter fled to Costa Rica, saying he was seeking “a more adventuristic” treatment for the prostate cancer that doctors had predicted would kill him within two years. He wrote in a note to the judge: “I find my drive for survival stronger than my sense of obligation to your legal system.”
His drive for survival didn’t keep him and a friend from entering--and winning--a national bridge tournament in the Central American nation.
Tracked down less than a year later by U.S. officials, Carpenter spent several months in a Costa Rican jail before being returned to California for sentencing.
With his cancer in remission, Carpenter was sentenced in 1995 to seven years in federal prison. After his release from prison in 1999, Carpenter settled in seclusion in San Antonio with Doris Morrow, a former Senate aide who became his companion after his legal separation from his wife, Janeth, in 1986.
When Carpenter’s daughter Jana Carpenter-Koklich, 41, disappeared from her Lakewood home last August, her father came forward briefly to discuss the case with the news media.
“If they come back alive, it usually happens in the first 24 hours,” he said. “I’m pretty discouraged.”
Carpenter-Koklich has not yet been found but her disappearance was not thought to be linked to her father’s legal problems.
Some former colleagues remember Carpenter for his antics in Sacramento. Faced with a lobbyist seeking his vote, the senator might stare at a computer screen, then announce that the person’s client had given more money to his opponent. In fact, the screen was blank, but the bluff persuaded more than one lobbyist to sweeten Carpenter’s campaign coffers. He also made a habit of staring intently into the eyes of a person speaking to him, then responding in a slow, mechanical voice, former colleagues recalled.
In the 1980s, fellow Democrat Otto Lacayo, whom Carpenter had defeated for the Assembly nomination in 1974, said of his rival:
“Paul is very intelligent and very well spoken. But he has kind of a stone-faced look and a dry sense of humor. If you use that against your enemy, it’s a look that can kill.”
Carpenter was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on Feb. 24, 1928. He did undergraduate work at the University of Iowa and earned a doctorate in experimental psychology from Florida State University.
He moved to Orange County in 1960, and while working as a psychologist he became involved in Democratic politics. He made two unsuccessful bids for public office, running for Congress in 1964 and, two years later, for the Assembly.
In 1974 he finally won an Assembly seat and, building a power base in Sacramento, was elected to the state Senate in 1976.
Besides Morrow and his missing daughter, Carpenter is survived by another daughter--Julie Stevenson, of Palm Springs--and two grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.