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Legal Eligibility of La Pietra to Hold Office Questioned

September 21, 1986|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

West Hollywood City Atty. Michael Jenkins has begun research to determine whether City Council candidate Gene La Pietra's 1974 federal felony conviction might prevent him from holding office.

Jenkins and City Manager Paul Brotzman said last week that the recent disclosure of the candidate's 1974 conviction for sending an obscene film through the mail has spurred questions from La Pietra's campaign foes, city residents and the press about his legal qualifications to hold office.

Lot of Inquiries

"There have been a lot of inquiries made," Jenkins said. "The question has arisen as to what would happen if he were elected--would he be qualified to serve? It's an appropriate question to look at."

According to federal court documents, La Pietra pleaded guilty on July 23, 1974, to one count of sending obscene material through the mail. He was subsequently placed on probation for five years, but the sentence was terminated after three years by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Kelleher.

The city attorney said he wanted to resolve apparent vagueness and conflicts in several state constitutional passages that deal with how a criminal conviction may affect a candidate's eligibility to hold office.

Staffers at La Pietra's campaign headquarters were angered by Jenkins' actions. David Carlat, La Pietra's campaign manager, insisted that state law clearly allows the candidate to serve as councilman. "We already took an extensive look at California law and we're confident that there is no question that Gene can hold office," Carlat said.

Criticizing Jenkins and other city officials for intruding on the council race, Carlat said they were aiding the efforts of La Pietra's major opponent, Abbe Land, and her partisans, the tenant-backed Coalition for Economic Survival.

"The city attorney already knows whether this is an issue or not," Carlat said. "By bringing this up, the city is participating in the attempt by CES and Abbe Land to get more campaign publicity."

But Brotzman replied that the city had an obligation to resolve questions about La Pietra's campaign status.

"We're not trying to rule out a candidate," he said. "People have raised the issue and we're trying to respond authoritatively. We're trying to answer questions. It's as pure and simple as that."

Several state and county elections officials, questioned about the impact of a federal felony conviction on a candidate's eligibility to hold office, said they would defer to Jenkins' interpretation.

Conflicting Passages

Richard Nishite, an attorney with the California secretary of state's elections division, agreed with Jenkins that, on its surface, the state law appears to contain vague and conflicting passages.

Nishite said one provision in the state's code for general law cities (West Hollywood is a general law city) allows candidates who are registered to vote to run for office. According to this provision, Nishite said, a criminal conviction could prohibit a candidate from running for office only if the candidate weres still imprisoned or on probation.

But another section of the state Constitution provides that "laws shall be made to exclude persons convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, malfeasance in office or other high crimes" from holding office. The problem with this passage, Nishite said, is that it does not provide a detailed interpretation of "high crimes."

David M. Brown, La Pietra's attorney, said he is certain that La Pietra's felony obscenity conviction could not be interpreted as a "high crime." Brown said that although the state Constitution does not specify high crimes that prevent candidates from holding office, it does list high crimes that prohibit citizens from registering to vote.

Brown said he believes that any state court would use the same "high crimes" list in both instances.

"The conviction would have to evidence the kind of dishonesty or official corruption that's manifested in crimes such as perjury and bribery," Brown said, adding, "I feel very confident that (La Pietra's) conviction would definitely not rise to the level of high crimes listed in the California Constitution."

Brown said he would "be amazed if the city attorney were to render any other opinion."

Earlier this year, Jenkins did research on similar questions that arose after City Councilwoman Valerie Terrigno was convicted by a U.S. District Court jury of embezzling nearly $7,000 in federal emergency block grant funds.

Terrigno's conviction forced her to leave her post. Her vacant seat is now being sought by La Pietra, Abbe Land and a third candidate, Stephen Michael.

Jenkins said he hopes to have an opinion available by the end of this week.

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