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Roth Opposition to Sprinklers Sets Off Inquiry

December 11, 1992|GEORGE FRANK and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — Authorities are investigating whether Orange County Supervisor Don R. Roth helped kill a costly residential fire-prevention measure in exchange for thousands of dollars in improvements to his Anaheim Hills home from a major local builder, The Times has learned.

In one of his first official acts as chairman of the Board of Supervisors in January, 1990, Roth--citing a last-minute staff recommendation--made a successful motion to shelve a controversial proposal that would have forced developers to install automated fire sprinklers in thousands of new homes. The board unanimously approved the move.

Roth said he was sending the measure back to staff "for further study." Nearly three years later, it has not returned to the board for a vote.

In a Thursday statement, Roth denied any connection between the home improvements in early 1990 and his own position on the sprinkler issue, while his attorney, Dana Reed, called the suggestion "preposterous" and "utterly ridiculous."

But even as the county's building industry was lobbying against the proposal at that time, workers for the Presley Co. were knocking down a bearing wall at Roth's new Anaheim Hills home and doing other free or undervalued work for him.

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Guy N. Ormes said: "We can confirm that we are looking at the sprinkler vote and whether or not it has any relation to the house improvements." He declined to discuss further details.

A fire official said the district attorney's office has contacted the Orange County Fire Department about its failed efforts to persuade the supervisors to approve the legislation as a critical life-saving measure.

Larry J. Holms, Orange County director of fire services, said he was told that one of his employees had been questioned recently by investigators about whether there was "undue pressure" surrounding the sprinkler proposal.

And Roth's ex-wife, Jackie Roth, confirmed that she was also questioned about the issue by district attorney's investigators when they interviewed her last month as part of a seven-month investigation into allegations of influence peddling against Roth.

Jackie Roth refused to discuss details of the interview.

But sources said she told authorities about a conversation she allegedly had with Roth in mid-1989, as the couple were discussing a family-room expansion and other home improvements that the Presley Co. was planning to make at the Roths' new home.

In recounting that conversation, Jackie Roth was said to have quoted Roth as saying that the work "wasn't going to cost anything" because the Presley Co. wanted to ensure Roth's support on the upcoming sprinkler vote.

Jackie Roth alleged that her husband told her: "They don't want me to be voting for sprinklers," sources said. She later confirmed to The Times that she had told authorities about this remark.

Evidence has mounted in recent months about meals, trips, flight upgrades, landscaping work, an $8,500 loan and other unreported gifts that Roth received from local business people who later had projects before the county. Under state law, elected officials are required to report all gifts in excess of $50 and to disqualify themselves from voting on matters for one year involving people who have given them $250 or more.

But the remark that Roth's ex-wife alleges he made to her about the sprinkler vote appears to draw the most direct link to date between a gift and a Roth vote that followed it.

Presley Co. officials declined to discuss the issue. Asked whether there was any connection between the improvements and the vote, company President L.C. (Bob) Albertson Jr., an occasional golfing partner of Don Roth, said: "No comment."

In a written statement released by his lawyer, Roth said he was "saddened and appalled" to learn of his ex-wife's allegations. "Her claim is absolutely false. I can only attribute her statements to the fact that she remains very bitter over our (1991) divorce."

Reed said the sprinkler issue was a volatile one, with heavy pressure from both sides.

"Of course he was lobbied (by developers). He was lobbied on the other side as well," Reed said. "It is utterly ridiculous to suggest his opinion on such a major issue was colored by the fact that he had some work done on his house."

Roth, under investigation since May over allegations of influence peddling, received thousands of dollars in free or undervalued improvements at his new Anaheim Hills home from the Presley Co. in late 1989 and early 1990.

After the Roths told top officials at Presley that they were unhappy with parts of the floor plan in their model home, the company knocked down walls to enlarge both the dining room and the family room, added French doors, and did other custom work, interviews and records show. The Roths ended up with the biggest home in their 37-house development, at 2,700 square feet.

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