SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson has signed into law three bills preventing taxpayers from paying court damages incurred when an elected official is found liable for misconduct--or worse.
The bills were inspired by a 1993 case in which a jury found Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich liable for conspiring to influence a judge on behalf of a campaign contributor.
Although the case is on appeal, county lawyers have agreed to pay an unspecified portion of the $1.2 million in compensatory damages that were awarded.
The new laws specify that such government entities as counties and cities do not have to pay damages if their elected officials get themselves into trouble--from intervening in court cases to engaging in sexual harassment to committing a felony.
If an elected official is unable to afford the court costs, public agencies still have the option of making the payments, but are required by the new laws to seek reimbursement from the official.
"It serves notice to all politicians . . . statewide that the taxpayers will not be left holding the bag for improprieties," said Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman.
Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) authored the bill, AB 2467, that most closely mirrors the circumstances of the Antonovich case. It specifically targets cases in which elected officials try to intervene in a judicial proceeding.
"Under this bill, any elected official who chooses to intervene in a court proceeding will do so at his or her own financial risk--not at the risk of the taxpayers' wallets," said Bowen.
Antonovich was not available for comment, but a spokesman said he favored such changes in the law. They will not, however, apply retroactively to the Antonovich case.
"We supported these bills because they would bring an end to frivolous lawsuits against deep pocket entities," said Steven Herbert, Antonovich's spokesman.
Antonovich, a supervisor since 1980, says he did nothing improper five years ago when he telephoned a judge to put in a good word for campaign contributor Krikor Suri and his jewelry business partners. Suri and his allies were involved in a lawsuit against another partner, businessman Avedis Kasparian.
Campaign reports show that Suri and his companies contributed $19,000 to Antonovich's campaigns from 1985 until 1989, lent him $10,000 about a month before he called the judge and made a $3,000 contribution four days before the supervisor made the call.
Two months after Antonovich's telephone call, Judge Eric Younger excused himself from the lawsuit, explaining in a deposition that he felt "uncomfortable about the call either having an impact or the appearance of an impact."
Then Kasparian filed a new suit against Antonovich, the county, Suri and his partners, complaining that he lost money because the judge was influenced by Antonovich. A Norwalk Superior Court jury agreed, holding the defendants liable for $1.2 million in compensatory damages.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) authored one of the other two bills, AB 2508, limiting government liability, but his was broader than Bowen's and would also cover cases of sexual harassment, sexual battery and attempts to inflict emotional distress.
Katz took note not only of the Antonovich case but a sexual harassment lawsuit pending against Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden.
"The message I wanted to send was that public officials who screw up cannot expect taxpayers to pay up for them," Katz said. "People who behave unethically and illegally should be held accountable and they ought to pay up first."
The third bill in the package, AB 2522, was authored by Assemblyman Paul Horcher (R-Diamond Bar). Although Horcher told a legislative committee it stemmed in part from his concerns over the Antonovich case, he said it more directly addressed wrongdoing of municipal elected officials--such as one city councilman who sued constituents for trying to recall him.
Horcher's bill states that government entities will be liable for neither damages nor defense costs if an elected official is convicted of a felony.
While Antonovich continued to gain unwanted notoriety with the bills' signing in Sacramento, lawyers handling the county's appeal stressed Tuesday that they are still fighting on his behalf.
"There hasn't been a cent paid and we anticipate with the appeal that the entire verdict will be overturned," said Gina Calvelli, an attorney with Riordan & McKinzie in Los Angeles.