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Tap-Dancing on an Ethics Tightrope : Politicians should steer clear of close calls

March 27, 1993

The yearlong ethics investigation of Orange County Supervisor Don R. Roth came to a fitting close with his guilty plea to seven criminal misdemeanor counts and agreement to pay $50,000 in fines. While it forgoes the drama of a public trial, the plea bargain is an appropriate end to one of the sorrier episodes in Orange County's checkered political history.

The Board of Supervisors there, and in Los Angeles too, wields tremendous power over land-use and other decisions. The Roth case has been instructive for the region and will leave an important legacy in Orange County: County lawyers now are drafting a long-overdue ordinance to ban virtually all gifts to county officials. Many cities plan to follow suit. There also are plans to require lobbyists to register and disclose the projects they are involved in.

Orange County's recent sensitivity to the ethics of political influence is also part of a wave of public reaction to influence peddling that is washing over the state.

This week, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors adopted landmark legislation, an effort led by Supervisor Gloria Molina, that toughens lobbyist-registration requirements. Lobbyists are now required to submit quarterly reports on all money spent on lobbying.

The Roth case is a clear signal to all politicians that prosecutors plan to take such laws seriously. While the 71-year-old Roth escaped jail time, his misdemeanor convictions, fines, three years' probation and a requirement to give 200 hours of public service by no means constitute a light penalty.

Most important, Roth already had resigned, effective March 1, in the face of the county's investigation, which was launched following disclosures made in The Times.

The plea bargain, announced Thursday by Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, also avoided a costly public trial in which prosecutors were scarcely assured of the outcome. They said there was not enough evidence to file formal bribery or other felony charges.

In the end, Roth admitted he had accepted numerous gifts from three businesses and the City of Anaheim and then voted on matters affecting them.

The late state Treasurer Jesse M. Unruh, an irreverent man who operated under the old rules of political ethics, was fond of saying that if a politician couldn't take lobbyists' money, drink their booze, love their women and still vote against them, then they didn't belong in politics. The new ethical sensibility holds that politicians should no longer have the choice of trying to walk that line.

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