SANTA ANA — Orange County prosecutors said Tuesday that they will press ahead with their criminal investigation against Supervisor Don R. Roth, despite the surprise announcement by Roth that he is resigning his office under fire.
"If there is sufficient evidence for criminal charges, the penalty is fines and/or jail, and the penal statutes are not satisfied by (Roth) stepping down from office," Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said in an interview. "There's more to this case than that."
While it has been widely suggested that Roth could have been forced from office if he were convicted of violations of political laws, Capizzi's comments marked the first time that authorities have raised the prospect of a jail sentence for Roth.
But no decisions have been made, Capizzi cautioned. He said officials in his office hope to "sit down and decide what charges may be filed" within the next several weeks, a timetable that could change.
Roth denies any criminal wrongdoing.
Dana R. Reed, one of Roth's lawyers in the case, said the supervisor is resigning only because the investigation has severely hampered his ability to do his job--not because he believes his decision may help deter the prospect of criminal charges.
Roth acknowledges that he may have inadvertently committed "a score" of "technical violations" of the state's Political Reform Act by failing to report some gifts and then voting on matters affecting the donors, Reed said Tuesday at a news conference after Roth's announcement. "He has accepted responsibility for those violations from Day 1."
But, Reed added, "we are absolutely convinced that his actions do not rise to criminal conduct."
Authorities are seeking to determine whether the two-term supervisor traded political favors for thousands of dollars in unreported gifts from local business people who later had business before the Board of Supervisors.
Roth's announcement that he will give up his county seat Monday prompted widespread speculation in political and legal circles that he is hoping to avoid the prospect of criminal charges in exchange for relinquishing his job.
"The timing is amazing. The question is why he resigned now," said William R. Mitchell, a lawyer who is president of the Orange County chapter of Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
Mitchell suggested that Roth's move blunts the impact of the the district attorney's probe because authorities lose their ability to force Roth out of office through prosecution.
"The resignation puts a damper on a criminal investigation and reduces its scope," lessening the likelihood of prosecution, Mitchell maintained.
Indeed, the last two Orange County supervisors to leave their posts also did so under clouds of inquiry--but neither was ever charged with a crime.
Ralph Clark decided not to seek reelection in 1986 after 15 years on the Board of Supervisors in part because of links to a statewide public corruption probe that centered on Anaheim fireworks manufacturer W. Patrick Moriarty. Roth, then mayor of Anaheim, successfully won election to Clark's seat.
In January, 1987, Supervisor Bruce Nestande, also under investigation in connection with the Moriarty case, resigned his seat. Current Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez was named to replace him.
But Capizzi said neither Clark nor Nestande drew the same type of active interest from his office as Roth has. "I don't like to draw comparisons . . . but they're really quite a bit different," he said.
Capizzi, who earned his reputation in the district attorney's office in the 1970s as the prosecutor in a series of high-profile public corruption cases, said he was not surprised by Roth's resignation.
"Nothing ever surprises me in this business," he said. "It's a shame. He has to accept responsibility for the actions that resulted in this decision. . . . But I give him credit for resigning and concluding that he wasn't able to carry out his job."
Capizzi's office has taken part in dozens of hours of secret Orange County Grand Jury proceedings in recent months, issuing subpoenas to four Roth aides and securing search warrants for the supervisor's bank records.
In the affidavit accompanying the search warrant last month, the district attorney's office said that it suspects Roth of felonies including theft, fraud, perjury, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
This last allegation stems from reports that Roth backdated by more than 16 months a rental agreement with a local business family. That document has proven central to the probe, as authorities seek to show that Roth received what amounted to an $8,500 interest-free loan from the Dougher family.
Investigators have looked at a range of gifts that Roth is alleged to have received from local business people--from meals and trips to flight upgrades, home improvements and landscaping work.
Authorities are seeking to determine whether the supervisor broke state laws that require politicians to report all gifts worth $50 or more and to abstain from voting on any government business that affects anyone who has given them gifts valued at $250 or more in the previous year.
"His resignation doesn't affect us one way or the other. It doesn't change anything," said one law-enforcement official who asked not to be identified. "We don't quit (the investigation) just because he resigns."
Times staff writer Mark Platte contributed to this report.