Three months after she was indicted on federal embezzlement charges, West Hollywood City Councilwoman Valerie Terrigno has made little progress in generating visible public sympathy for her cause and seeking funds for her legal defense.
Activists and business and political leaders in West Hollywood and throughout Los Angeles' gay community said they were puzzled by Terrigno's inaction, particularly because she and supporters hinted after she was indicted in October that they would mount fund-raising and public rallying efforts.
Terrigno is accused of diverting more than $10,700 in federal funds for her personal use while she headed a now-defunct counseling agency in Hollywood. She is scheduled to appear for trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on March 11.
"I would have expected some kind of appeal. Instead, it's been dead quiet," said Jinx Beers, a lesbian activist and publisher of the Lesbian News, a Canoga Park-based publication.
But what has not been widely known is that Terrigno and her staunchest supporters could not proceed with fund-raising efforts because they had been unable to obtain guidelines from the state attorney general's office on how she should set up her defense fund.
"I haven't done any major soliciting of funds because I want to be sure that it's done properly," she said. "Not having a legal opinion has made me cautious."
According to West Hollywood City Atty. Michael Jenkins, whose opinion Terrigno also sought, a ruling from the attorney general's office had been expected last week. But none had been received by late Thursday.
Terrigno and her allies have not known whether to treat contributions as personal gifts or campaign contributions. "We're in a real bind," said Peter McAlear, Terrigno's campaign treasurer for her 1984 council race. "We don't know how we should characterize the funds we get."
Terrigno declined to express a preference on how her defense fund should be structured. But the designation could play a large role in determining the amount of money she can raise.
If the state attorney general's office decides to consider the defense funds as campaign contributions, Jenkins said, no limits would be placed on the amounts that could be given. Donations would have to be reported like any other regular campaign contribution.
But if the funds are designated private gifts, different restrictions would apply, Jenkins said. The gift could be in any amount, but if it exceeded $250, it would fall under state conflict-of-interest laws.
For example, Jenkins said, if a contributor gave Terrigno more than $250 and later came before the City Council to request a building permit or to do business with the city, conflict-of-interest laws would come into play.
"If the council's decision in that case might have a material financial effect on the person who made the donation," Jenkins said, "then the council member who received the donation would have to excuse himself or herself from the vote."
Several West Hollywood developers and business leaders suggested that they might hesitate to give substantial donations to Terrigno if it looked like any of their projects would be affected by conflict-of-interest laws.
"If called upon, I want to help Valerie out," said banker and attorney Sheldon Andelson, who owns the West Hollywood-based Bank of Los Angeles. "But I have to be careful. Until the legal niceties are all tied up, there is a question in my mind whether the Bank of Los Angeles can do business with the city if we contribute."
Although many prominent West Hollywood business leaders said they would contribute to Terrigno's defense fund if asked, several others said they were approached by Terrigno partisans soon after her indictment last October. They said they were surprised by the lack of follow-up.
'Beating the Drums'
"Her people were beating the drums very loudly at the start, trying to get people to contribute and lend their names to the cause," said one veteran gay fund-raiser. "I got a few calls and then suddenly, nothing more. The rhetoric was there in the beginning. It just didn't catch in the (homosexual) community."
Indeed, Terrigno and her allies suggested in the days immediately after her indictment that she had been made a target for prosecution because of her prominence as the acknowledged lesbian mayor of the first city in the United States to be run by a gay-dominated council.
"I'm somewhat saddened to see the U.S. government single me out for prosecution," she said hours after she was indicted. Her defense attorney, Howard Weitzman, added, "It's definitely possible her sexual orientation influenced the U.S. attorney's office in bringing this suit."
But in the weeks that followed, Terrigno, under orders from Weitzman, declined to discuss her case. And her followers' initial outcry that she was the victim of prosecutors' anti-gay sentiment quickly died.