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Alfred H. Song, 85; Legislature’s First Asian American Left Under a Cloud

Times Staff Writer

Alfred H. Song, the first Asian American elected to the California Legislature, whose achievements during a 16-year career in Sacramento were overshadowed by allegations of political corruption, has died. He was 85.

Song died of natural causes Monday at an assisted living center in Irvine, his daughter, Leslie Song Winner, said Wednesday.

Song was a lawyer and Monterey Park city councilman before winning election to the state Assembly in 1961.

He moved to the state Senate in 1966 and developed a reputation as one of the Legislature’s foremost legal experts. His leadership positions included the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Democratic Caucus, which he helped found.

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His legislative career ended in 1978 amid reports that he was the subject of an FBI probe into political wrongdoing. The federal government later dropped its investigation of Song after concluding that no prosecution was warranted.

Song was a Hawaii native of Korean ancestry whose parents worked on sugar plantations. He attended USC, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1942. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, he returned to USC for a law degree in 1945.

Stylish and cosmopolitan, Song served on the Monterey Park City Council from 1960 to 1962 before representing a broader swath of the San Gabriel Valley as an assemblyman and senator.

A former Senate colleague, David A. Roberti, noted that Song was elected to the Legislature years before his San Gabriel Valley district became heavily Asian.

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Although Song was proud of his heritage and was active in civil rights legislation, “he never made an enormous thing about being Asian,” Roberti recalled this week.

Roberti called Song “a lawyer’s lawyer” whose bills often focused on the tedious work of updating state codes and making them more equitable.

Most notable among those bills was one that overhauled the California Evidence Code, a guide to rules of evidence admissible in court.

Song also successfully carried legislation that gave credit card customers greater protection against hidden costs and toughened regulations against fraudulent appliance warranties.

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Another Song bill created the office of the state public defender.

He said his proudest accomplishment in Sacramento was a law designed to protect minority voters from harassment at the polls.

His political troubles began in the mid-1970s when news stories reported that he had used his influence to help the leader of an illegal ambulance-chasing ring, who gave him, his family and his field deputy lavish gifts or favors.

Although Song did not deny receiving gifts, he maintained that he never accepted anything in return for his vote or influence. Two of his associates were indicted on perjury charges but their trials ended in hung juries.

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In 1977, a federal investigation was launched into Song’s acceptance of a membership in a Sacramento country club from a prominent lobbyist. Song said he repaid the lobbyist in increments before the investigation began.

He was never charged with a crime, but the announcement from the U.S. attorney’s office that it was dropping the case came too late -- 18 months after Song lost his 26th Senate District seat in a bruising 1978 race won by challenger Joseph B. Montoya.

Montoya, who had run as a “good government” candidate, attacked the incumbent in a tabloid-style mailer that suggested, as Song put it, that “I was going to be indicted tomorrow.” Song came in a distant third in the three-way race and faded into political oblivion.

Ironically, a dozen years later, Montoya was convicted of seven federal corruption counts, including extortion, racketeering and money laundering, and was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison.

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Song spent the years after leaving the Senate in a variety of part-time jobs, some of them patronage appointments by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.

Those positions included seats on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the California Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board, and the Medical Board of California. During the 1980s, he also served as a state deputy attorney general.

Song told The Times in 1990 that he was still troubled by the allegations that had besmirched his reputation.

“There is one overriding question that I’ll never find the answer to,” he said. “That is the why of the investigation, what was behind it.”

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In addition to Winner, Song is survived by daughters Marsha Song Boehling and Frances Song; son Mark E. Song; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is pending.


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