LONG BEACH — Councilman Edd Tuttle, denying that he ever used a free pass from a helicopter company seeking a city license, said this week that he may have a hard time proving he did not break state law because the unused pass was stolen from his office.
Tuttle's assertion that a file containing the pass was taken from his City Hall office is the latest twist in a series of events surrounding the question of whether Tuttle accepted a free ticket from L.A. Helicopter Inc.
The California Constitution prohibits public officeholders, other than public utilities commissioners, from accepting free or discount rides from transportation companies. The penalty is loss of office. But spokesmen for two state agencies that might enforce the regulation say the matter is not clear-cut and that it is uncertain whether they would pursue the case even if it could be proved that Tuttle did take a free ride.
An anonymous letter mailed last week to area newspapers and to the attorney general's office claims that Tuttle broke the constitutional provision. The unsigned letter was stapled to a copy of a Feb. 27 letter from Tuttle to L.A. Helicopter that begins: "Thank you very much for the helicopter pass."
Tuttle said he did receive a pass from L.A. Helicopter but that he never used it. Now, he said, a file with the pass has been stolen from his office.
Two weeks ago, in an interview with The Times, Gordon J. Myers, president of L.A. Helicopter, said that Tuttle took a free demonstration ride at the company's insistence. He said the company wanted Tuttle to see that the regularly scheduled flights out of Long Beach Municipal Airport would not increase air-traffic noise.
"It was not intended to be a free ride. It was intended for him to see that we would not impact his area," Myers said.
But this week, Lloyd A. Stevens, company executive vice president, said that Tuttle paid a $130 fare for himself and his wife. Stevens said that Tuttle paid in cash--"as a matter of fact, $20s and $10." Tuttle also says he paid for the ride.
Myers was out of town this week and could not be reached for comment. In the earlier interview, he said the helicopter company had offered demonstration flights to council members as a way to establish good relations with the members who were working to limit the number of airplane flights at Long Beach Airport.
Tuttle represents the airport area and is the most vocal opponent of airport noise. Myers said the company especially wanted to win his support--although the council did not have to approve whether L.A. Helicopter would receive its permit. The permit was issued through the Public Works Department, and the council was informed on June 16 that the company would begin operating regularly scheduled flights the next day. Tuttle was absent from the June 16 meeting.
When L.A. Helicopter first asked Tuttle to take a demonstration flight, he declined, saying he was too busy, Myers said. But helicopter company officials asked him to use their service the next time he was traveling to Los Angeles International Airport. On his way to Washington, D.C. for a National League of Cities meeting Feb. 28, Tuttle took the offer but then had to wait close to an hour before take-off, Myers said.
"If I really wanted to to do him a favor, (I would) have sent a limo to his house and taken him straight to the (L.A.) airport," Myers said. Myers added that he apologized if his company had placed Tuttle "in a compromising position." He said no other council members accepted the offer.
Tuttle said Tuesday that he did not know why the helicopter company said he took a free ride. "That's real strange," he said. "I don't know what to tell you. I find that real interesting myself."
Sheila Parsons, council executive assistant, said that the city paid for Tuttle's air fare and hotel for the Washington trip. and that he billed the city $339.85 for meals and other expenses. She said Tuttle submitted no bill for helicopter service.
Neither the attorney general's office, the district attorney's office nor the Fair Political Practices Commission would say whether a free helicopter ride would be a violation of the constitutional provision, originally written to prevent then-powerful railroad companies from influencing legislators.
Complaint Actions Vary
"The answer, in our view, is not that simple," explained Jack Winkler, the assistant attorney general who heads the opinions unit.
There are various ways such a complaint would be handled, Winkler said. The most likely course would call for an interested party to file civil action against Tuttle, Winkler said. It would be up to the attorney general's office to determine whether such a lawsuit could be filed, but it is a private party--not the attorney general--who would take the matter to court, Winkler said.
"It's a private action; anyone could institute it if they have our approval first," Winkler said.