SANTA ANA — Orange County Supervisor Don R. Roth spent $1,200 in campaign funds to buy a weekend trip to Atlanta at a charity auction, raising new questions Thursday about his adherence to state political laws.
Roth bought the trip at an auction held during his own celebrity golf tournament in 1991, outbidding all competitors to win two round-trip airline tickets to Atlanta, tickets to a Rams-Falcons football game there and a weekend stay in a hotel.
When it came time to pay for the package, Roth billed the $1,200 tab to his political campaign account, listing the expense as a donation to a Fullerton youth service center that was the beneficiary of the charity event, Roth's campaign finance records and interviews show.
State law prohibits politicians' spending campaign funds for anything not "directly" related to government business. The broadly written law allows spending for everything from conferences to civic events, but not personal vacations, political finance experts say.
"Clearly he can make a donation to a charity--that's perfectly legal," said Robert M. Stern, executive director of California Commission on Campaign Financing and co-author of the state's Political Reform Act. "But this seems to be a donation in exchange for something for his own use. That's not just a donation."
Roth's attorney, Dana Reed, said Thursday that "Supervisor Roth was under the impression that a donation like this was lawful." Reed said he would have to explore the issue further.
Disclosure of the trip in interviews and documents came just two days after Roth drew criticism from local activists and law enforcement officials for another unusual expenditure from his campaign account--$35,000 in legal fees for himself and his staff in response to an ongoing criminal probe.
Roth is the target of a district attorney's investigation into allegations that he exchanged political favors for thousands of dollars in trips, home improvements, flight upgrades and other unreported gifts.
The former Anaheim mayor has denied any wrongdoing and vowed exoneration.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Guy N. Ormes, the lead prosecutor in the case, acknowledged Thursday that his office has looked at the Atlanta trip. "It's something that we're aware of, but we are not pursuing it (as a possible criminal matter) at this time," he said.
The issue represents a "gray area" because Roth may be able to claim that the trip was not worth $1,200, and that his winning bid partially paid for a charitable donation, Ormes said.
"We like (to investigate) things that are clear-cut. This one may not be," Ormes said.
Several political finance experts said Thursday that they believe that the use of campaign funds for a personal trip raises some troubling legal questions.
The state's Political Reform Act, passed in 1974 in the wake of voter discontent over Watergate, bars local politicians from using campaign money on any travel or accommodations that are not "directly" related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose.
The toughening of campaign-spending laws in recent years has outlawed the use of political contributions for such personal items as furnishing a townhouse or paying divorce fees.
Experts said the law still gives politicians wide latitude for use of campaign funds. Even so, they said, the Roth expenditure is an unusual one.
Roth reported the $1,200 expenditure in his campaign expense statement as a donation to the Western Youth Services, without mention of the Atlanta trip. Stern, the co-author of the Political Reform Act, said such a reporting technique appears to mask the true reason for the payment in Roth's campaign finance statements.
And Scott Hallabrin, a senior attorney with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento, said the trip would seem to be in conflict with a ban on charity donations that have "a material financial effect" on the candidate.
"That could present a problem," he said.
But Reed discounted that issue.
"It was all for charity," he said. "The question is: Does getting a free round trip to Atlanta and a couple of (football) tickets have a material effect on Don Roth? And I would argue no, it does not. He didn't receive any money."
Each spring for about the last five years, Roth has helped organize the Don Roth Classic, a charity golf tournament in north Orange County. It has raised more than $30,000 annually to benefit Western Youth Services, a Fullerton-based nonprofit group that operates programs for the homeless and needy around the county, said WYS Executive Director Frank Scott.
"We feel Supervisor Roth is just an outstanding person. He's been very much a supporter of ours," Scott said in an interview Thursday. Noting recent press reports on the district attorney's investigation into the Roth case, he said: "We feel very bad that these things are being said about him."
The 1991 tournament closed with a dinner and two auctions to raise money for Western Youth Services, with items donated by airlines and other businesses.