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Legislators Transfixed by Scandal Allegations : Sex and Fireworks--a Hot Capitol Topic

March 22, 1985|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

SACRAMENTO — Corruption.

It's somebody else's word; somewhere else's problem. It's what they have in Maryland or Chicago. It's an aberration, not a tradition, in government here.

Now, however, the grubby hand of corruption--bribes with money, prostitutes, vacation retreats, special favors--has reached seemingly deep into government, state and local.

And elected officials have grown fixated over who, if any, among them may fall to its grip--and when.

Here at the state Capitol, the strain grew to be too much Thursday, spilling onto the floor of the Senate where two veteran legislators debated whether one of them may have accepted the use of a prostitute and the other branded the whole subject "a scuzzy affair at the very, very best."

Moriarty Will Testify

The basic situation is that after 18 months of journalistic and law enforcement investigations, W. Patrick Moriarty, the Orange County fireworks manufacturer who is the central figure in the unpleasant saga, pleaded guilty to seven corruption charges, including illegal campaign contributions and providing payoffs in quest of a gambling club license. He has agreed to be a government witness against public officials.

For the most part, two houses of the state Legislature meet just as they always have, busy with the effort of making law. Campaign fund-raisers go on as before and the taverns in the arc of the Capitol still belong each night to the powerful.

But whether for reasons of curiosity or dread, or both, no one can escape the fact that, in the words of one Republican: "It is on the jungle drums up here."

In some quarters the corruption allegations are taken so seriously that a group of youngish, reform-minded lawmakers is secretely planning how to respond and "save this place" if high leaders of the Legislature are dragged down.

To the other extreme, some slough it off as a public relations nuisance in which legislators have and are being victimized.

One thing for sure is the growing sense of political anticipation and tension enveloping the government. What next?

"In any conversation longer than one second, it seems to come up," said Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles).

Banking and other business deals of Moriarty are subjects of investigation, as are his links to the Orange County Board of Supervisors and city council officials scattered around Los Angeles and Orange counties. The focus of his connection to Sacramento is a 1981 bill passed--and then vetoed by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.--that would have prevented local governments from banning the sale of so-called safe-and-sane fireworks, including those produced by Moriarty.

The Times has identified business links between Moriarty and 17 current or former public officials, and reported more than $590,000 in Moriarty political contributions, almost half of which were laundered through others. Dozens of candidates, from Gov. George Deukmejian on down, received laundered contributions, Moriarty associates have alleged. All the public officials said they were unaware of the true source of the contributions.

Three City of Commerce council members are the only elected officials who have been charged with a crime. But there are plenty of officials guessing that it is not over yet.

Nervous Legislators

"There are some nervous people up here," said Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), who has known Moriarty for years and whose district is home to Moriarty's Red Devil fireworks company. ". . . This is one of the biggest scandals, in what--the century? It's a big one."

The most sensational of the disclosures so far comes from former top Moriarty aides who said the fireworks executive provided prostitutes to public officials in an effort to gain political influence. Descriptions worthy of the most cynical soap opera have been offered about lavish, Moriarty-financed Beverly Hills parties where sex was served up along with hot and cold buffets.

Elected officials who supposedly received subsidized sex include Assembly Democratic Leader Mike Roos of Los Angeles and Los Angeles City Councilman David Cunningham, among others. All have either waved off the accusations as "ridiculous," as Cunningham did, or, like Roos, simply refused to discuss the matter.

But, as one might imagine, the accusations provide high-octane grist for Capitol gossip.

"Sex and firecrackers? Whew, that's some combination," remarked one lobbyist.

Such comments almost always are followed by this: "Heard anything new?"

On Thursday, state Sens. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress) and H.L. Richardson (R-Glendora), two old foes quick to grasp a political angle, took things a step further and went public during a session of the state Senate with the kind of juicy, backbiting offerings that previously were whispered only off the record.

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