An Orange County planning commissioner may have violated California's conflict-of-interest law by voting on matters affecting a major development company within one year after he accepted $365 worth of free golfing privileges, meals and theater and sports tickets from the firm, records show.
County documents reviewed by The Times show that Planning Commissioner C. Douglas Leavenworth voted eight times in 1988 on land-use matters affecting the development plans of the Mission Viejo Co., the firm that designed and built what is now the city of Mission Viejo and nearby Aliso Viejo.
Leavenworth's votes, all favoring positions urged by the Mission Viejo Co., followed his acceptance in 1987 of the gifts from the firm. Leavenworth valued those gifts at $365 on an annual financial-disclosure statement he filed with the county and the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
State law prohibits elected or appointed officials "at any level of state or local government" from participating in decisions that "will have a material financial effect" on any individual or company from which the official has received gifts worth $250 or more within the preceding 12 months.
Sandra Michioku, a spokeswoman for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, confirmed that any officeholder violating the $250 gift provision could face maximum fines of $2,000 per violation, imposed by the FPPC, or misdemeanor charges prosecuted by the county district attorney.
Referring to officials who accept $250 or more of gifts, Michioku said, "They must avoid participating in a governmental decision, if it is likely to affect the financial interest" of the donor.
Leavenworth, who was appointed by then-Supervisor Ralph Clark in 1982 and reappointed by Supervisor Don R. Roth, said in an interview that he has violated no law and has "absolutely not" been influenced by the gifts from the Mission Viejo Co.
"Not one iota," Leavenworth said. ". . . It's really an insult to suggest that people are buying our influence by providing us lunch, for Christ's sake. . . . We're private citizens trying to do our best for the county under very difficult circumstances."
Orange County planning commissioners are paid $170 for every meeting they attend. If the commissioners attended the minimum number of meetings held each year, 84, they would be paid $14,280, according to the commission's secretary.
The five-member Planning Commission holds wide power over whether, or how land may be developed in unincorporated areas of Orange County. The commission, for instance, can approve or deny land-use permits, variances and site plans that are crucial to developers who have hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. Decisions of the commission can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
Leavenworth's votes in 1988 regarding the Mission Viejo Co. encompassed approvals of the company's proposed area plans and tentative tract maps, according to Planning Commission records. On April 12, 1988, for instance, Leavenworth and his colleagues voted unanimously to deny an appeal of a Mission Viejo Co. tract map for the Aliso Viejo Planned Community. The appeal had been lodged by The Laguna Greenbelt Inc.
Records also show that over six years, from 1984 through 1989, Leavenworth has reported receiving $1,207 worth of gifts from the Mission Viejo Co. During that same period, Leavenworth reported that eight other development-related firms gave him gifts worth a total of $1,470.
Other planning commissioners have reported receiving gifts from developers. But none, other than Leavenworth, received more than $250 worth of gifts a year from any single company, according to the records.
Leavenworth answered questions over the telephone from his home in Anaheim but declined to grant an interview in person. The commissioner said that he does not know of any law that prevented him from voting on matters after he had accepted gifts of any value.
Leavenworth declined a reporter's invitation to show him, in writing, the state conflict-of-interest law.
The prohibition is contained in the Political Reform Act, the post-Watergate reform that was enacted overwhelmingly by California voters in 1974.
Leavenworth instead pointed out that Orange County's so-called TIN CUP ordinance does not apply to him because, as an appointed official, he does not accept campaign contributions. The county ordinance was designed to prevent county supervisors from participating in decisions affecting development companies that give more than $1,808 to the politician's campaign.
Terry Andrus, a deputy Orange County counsel, confirmed that the TIN CUP ordinance does not apply to members of the Planning Commission. Andrus also said that the commissioners are subject to the $250 gift ceiling contained in the state's conflict-of-interest law.