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NEWS ANALYSIS : Roth Link to Bribes Sought but Never Found


SANTA ANA — Ultimately, Don Roth's friends stood by him--so solidly, in fact, that the embattled politician was able to conclude a grueling influence-peddling investigation this week without risking jail time or a felony conviction.

Authorities, seeking for the last 11 months to make a case that the former supervisor traded political favors for gifts, sifted through a variety of enticing nuggets: a backdated lease, a scribbling on a lunch receipt, an incriminating remark from an ex-wife, a series of oddly timed votes.

But they never established the link they had been seeking--a Roth associate who might tie a gift to a vote and might offer evidence that the former Anaheim mayor had been bribed. And as a result, they entered into a plea agreement Thursday that left Roth declaring exoneration, even as he admitted having violated state ethics laws seven times and agreed to pay $50,000 in fines and do 200 hours of community service work.

Roth's lawyers say authorities never established a gift-to-vote connection because it simply never existed. "The facts don't reveal any kind of linkage, and these guys looked everywhere. There just wasn't any evidence of influence peddling," said Paul S. Meyer, defense attorney for Roth, 71, who resigned his post as supervisor on March 1 as a result of the probe.

But district attorney's officials, offering their most detailed portrait of the investigation on Friday, said part of the problem came in their efforts to penetrate the personal popularity Roth has built up in the community through more than two decades in public service.

In interview after interview with Roth associates, "these people told us the lunches, trips, gifts, whatever, were given to Mr. Roth to 'gain access'--that was the typical phrase that was used--to make sure they had his ear," Deputy Dist. Atty. Guy N. Ormes said.

"But we didn't have anyone say, 'This gift was given to Roth in exchange for X,' " Ormes said. "A lot of witnesses said they just did this for Roth (in giving him gifts) because they like him."

Ormes, the lead prosecutor in an emotionally charged case that has already sparked ethics reform measures in county government, made clear in a wide-ranging interview that prosecutors are happy with the results produced.

Roth admitted in Municipal Court Thursday that he had failed to report home improvements, landscaping work, trips, an $8,500 loan, sports tickets, golf passes and other gifts from local business people and the city of Anaheim, then voted on projects affecting three of the donors. He became the highest-ranking politician convicted of a crime in Orange County since 1980.

Meyer reiterated Friday his contention that the guilty pleas amount to an acknowledgment of "negligence" by Roth in tracking the gifts he received and the votes he cast. But Ormes disputed that contention, saying that Roth "has been convicted of criminal counts, and he is paying substantial fines. . . . What we have here are clearly not technical violations."

Ormes also said that prosecutors considered many other alleged gift-reporting and conflict-of-interest violations against Roth, but agreed to limit the charges to the seven misdemeanors in order to secure Roth's plea and to avoid the appearance of "piling on" the allegations.

The deal was finally cemented between Ormes and Meyer about 9:35 p.m. Wednesday after two weeks of what Meyer said Friday were "heated and extensive negotiations" over the types of pleas, fines and other issues.

"Our job is to get to the truth, and I think we've done that. I think we made a good case even if we didn't find a bribe," Ormes said.

The 14-year veteran in the district attorney's office said that without the use of a "sting" operation, the chances of proving in court that a politician solicited or accepted a bribe are slim.

In general, political deals are cut through "winks and nods," Ormes said. "If we had the very best situation we could get, we'd have a written agreement--'I, developer X, agree to pay you, politician Y, $50,000 if you do this.' But clearly that's not going to happen."

So in order to make a case of bribery, he said, "you need someone on the inside" to cooperate--or, in the parlance of law enforcement, to "roll over" on a suspect. "But for them to crack, they'd have to say, 'Yes, we bribed him.' "

In the Roth case, the supervisor's relations with three sets of Southland business people reveal the legal complexities of establishing whether a gift had any influence on the execution of public policy.

* The Presley Cos. of Southern California.

In one of his first official acts as chairman of the Board of Supervisors in January, 1990, Roth made a successful motion to shelve a controversial proposal that would have forced developers to install automatic sprinklers inside thousands of new homes. Roth sent the issue back to staff "for further study," but three years later it has still not returned for a vote.

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