SACRAMENTO — Seventeen months ago, FBI agents raided the offices of Assemblyman Frank Hill, then one of the most promising Republicans in the state Legislature.
It appeared that the FBI investigation into alleged influence peddling in Sacramento put Hill's career in jeopardy. But today, more than a year later, there are still no charges against Hill. And instead of waiting for investigators to resolve the cloud over his future, the 36-year-old legislator has decided to trust his fate to the voters in an election Tuesday to replace former state Sen. William Campbell.
The FBI probe "is something I can't control, so I've just got to go on with my life," Hill said in a recent interview. "I didn't do anything wrong (and) I would like to keep trying to move up."
Hill of Whittier was the first candidate to launch a bid for Campbell's 31st District seat, announcing his candidacy just hours after the veteran legislator from Hacienda Heights resigned last October to take a job in the private sector.
During the Senate campaign, the FBI investigation has kept Hill's name in the newspapers, and his opponents in the race have made it a campaign issue.
But the investigation does not appear to have had a significant effect on Hill's clout in the Capitol or, so far, on his bid for higher office.
Republicans don't often choose sides in a contested primary, but in this race that includes four Republicans, Hill has been endorsed by at least 18 legislators. That's more than either of the two Republican state senators running for lieutenant governor.
"For those of us who felt free to endorse him, we are embracing the idea that he's innocent until proven guilty," said Ken Maddy of Fresno, the Senate minority leader. "I think he has the respect of everyone up here. Putting aside this FBI thing, I don't think there's any doubt that if most of us had to pick the top five Assembly members, he'd be one of them."
Hill has also proven to be a strong fund-raiser. In finance statements filed last week, Hill reported almost $300,000 raised since the Senate race started Dec. 24, almost seven times that of one of his three GOP opponents, Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who raised the second-highest amount with about $44,000.
The two other Republicans in the race, Ron Isles and Gary Miller, are independently wealthy and have financed their races out of their own pockets. Isles, a Brea city councilman, reported a campaign funds of $189,000, but $175,000 of it was his own money. Miller, a city councilman from Diamond Bar, had $273,500, including a $270,000 loan to himself.
Legislators, lobbyists and Capitol staffers say the FBI probe has not diminished Hill's influence and effectiveness. He is still a member of the elite inner circle of only four Republicans who meet regularly with the governor to plan strategy and legislation.
"I haven't seen any change," said Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Carson), chairman of the Government Operations Committee on which Hill is ranking Republican. "There's a matter of respect and, my goodness, it's just one of those things."
The FBI investigation has reportedly focused on a payment Hill received in a meeting June 27, 1988, from officials representing Peachstate Capital West Ltd. The officials turned out to be undercover FBI agents and Peachstate was an FBI front.
In testimony during the trial of state Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), the only legislator charged so far in the scandal, one prosecution witness said he arranged for a $5,000 payment to Hill in return for his support on a bill sponsored by Peachstate.
Two months after the June meeting, FBI agents searched the offices of four legislators, including Hill's, capping a three-year undercover sting operation.
The FBI investigation has rocked Sacramento so much that polls now show most people believe legislators take bribes. And the scandal has become ammunition for anti-incumbency campaigns against some of those who weren't even involved.
Some of Hill's opponents in the Senate race are using the scandal as an issue against Hill, including one candidate who has formed a committee called "Throw the Rascals Out." Nevertheless, some Capitol observers say they believe Hill is the front-runner in the race, based on his power base and fund-raising abilities.
The race, however, is difficult to handicap because voter turnout is expected to be extremely low. That means a strong showing by one faction of voters--pro-choice supporters, for example--could make a significant difference in the outcome. The race is also largely invisible because the candidates are relying mostly on direct mail campaign rather than media advertisements.
The 31st District is split almost in half by the border between Los Angeles and Orange counties. It stretches from West Covina in the north to Laguna Beach in the south, and includes Southeast cities of Whittier, La Mirada and La Habra Heights. It is also overwhelmingly Republican, by a 54% to 36% margin.