The state attorney general's office has issued an opinion that could restrict West Hollywood Councilwoman Valerie Terrigno's efforts to raise funds to defray the costs of her upcoming federal embezzlement trial.
The legal opinion, issued last week, will make it difficult for Terrigno to accept donations larger than $250 because they will fall under the jurisdiction of state conflict-of-interest laws.
According to West Hollywood City Atty. Michael Jenkins, the three-page opinion by Deputy Atty. Gen. Ted Prim said that the funds Terrigno collects to pay for her legal defense would be viewed by the state as personal gifts. If a contributor gives Terrigno more than $250, and then appears before the City Council with a request that would have a "material financial effect" on his business, Terrigno would have to disqualify herself from voting on the item.
"It will hurt us somewhat," said Duke Comegys, president of the board of directors of the Hollywood-based Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center and a member of Terrigno's informal fund-raising committee. "It means we're going to have to ask for a lot of $249 donations."
Terrigno was charged last October with embezzling more than $10,700 in federal funds while she ran a now-defunct counseling service in Hollywood. She is scheduled to appear for trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on March 11.
Terrigno sought the opinion last November, shortly after she was indicted. She had hoped that donations could be considered as political contributions, which are not governed by the conflict-of-interest limits.
Terrigno said she was confident that she would still get donations of more than $250. "I don't think there are that many projects that would be affected by my vote," she said.
But faced with the possibility of losing Terrigno's crucial votes, some of her supporters in West Hollywood's business community are wary of exceeding the $250 limit.
"I'm going to give $249 out of an abundance of caution," said Sheldon Andelson, an influential attorney who has a significant interest in the West Hollywood-based Bank of Los Angeles.
Saying that he would have preferred to donate a much larger sum, Andelson added that he would ask friends to give to the defense fund. "I'm going to ask a lot of people to do the same," he said. "I believe she's in difficulty and needs to be supported."
Even with a campaign largely dependent on small donations, Terrigno said she expects to obtain enough money to defray her costs. Although she declined to give a figure, other Terrigno allies said they hoped to raise at least $50,000.
Those supporters said they believe that they can effectively raise funds through a grass-roots campaign using telephone and direct-mail appeals. Over the weekend, Comegys said, Terrigno allies made telephone appeals that drew more than $10,000 in pledges.
"So far the response has been very good," said Peter McAlear, a tax accountant who heads the fund-raising campaign.
McAlear said they expected the phone and mail appeals to be augmented by "some kind of evening fund-raiser, probably a dinner." And both he and Comegys said they also hoped to develop fund-raising appeals in other cities with large gay and lesbian populations.
"What we'd like to do is tap some of the same people who helped Ginny Foat," said Comegys. "She raised over $100,000 from a direct-mail campaign and a few small events."
Foat, a California feminist, was acquitted two years ago of the tire-iron bludgeoning murder of an Argentine businessman in Louisiana in 1966. Foat's cause was strongly supported--and funded--by segments of Los Angeles' feminist and gay communities.
Terrigno, an acknowledged lesbian who has charged that the government singled her out for prosecution in part because of her sexual orientation, said several people who helped direct Foat's defense committee have volunteered their services. "Some people see real similarities," Terrigno said.
She added that Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who has previously voiced her support for the embattled councilwoman, and feminist lawyer Gloria Allred have both pledged to help with any fund-raising campaign.
Terrigno said the two women might play a role in rallying support among feminists. "I think there's a growing perception out there that I'm fighting some of the same things that Ginny Foat fought," she said.