Sheriff Baca should just say no to gifts

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca can’t seem to say no, at least to gifts. As The Times recently reported, Baca has accepted more than $120,000 worth of freebies since taking office in 1998 — including 131 free rounds of golf, tickets to 42 basketball games and concerts, and 22 bottles of wine and liquor. Nearly $45,000 worth was given to him between 2007 and 2009. That’s more golf, wine and tickets than the rest of California’s 57 sheriffs combined accepted during the same period.

Baca says he doesn’t solicit the gifts and that he only takes them because it would be rude not to. He even bemoans the absence of a law that would prohibit him from taking them. Frankly, we don’t see why it’s so difficult to say no, but as for the lack of a law, we couldn’t agree more. County officials could start by adopting new rules making it harder for elected officials to accept freebies. State law currently allows elected officials to receive up to $420 in gifts annually from a single source. At the very least, the county could lower that to $100 for gifts from the companies or individuals with which it does business; that would put its rules on par with current L.A. city guidelines.

This isn’t the first time Baca has shown bad judgment. Last year, for instance, he lobbied the L.A. City Council to renew a contract for a company owned by the family of Michael Yamaki — an attorney who had lent him $20,000 to run for office, who picked up the tab for nine rounds of golf and who now works for the sheriff. An audit later showed that the company had shorted the city thousands of dollars. And Baca’s not alone. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa agreed to pay nearly $21,000 in fines related to free tickets, and former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez’s lavish trips to Europe weren’t illegal but were certainly unseemly.

This is pretty simple stuff: The sheriff shouldn’t be taking big gifts from deep-pocketed cronies or doling out favors to them. As top cop, he shouldn’t need a new rule to understand that taking $120,000 in gifts, while not illegal, is improper.