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Pressure Builds on Wilson Aide : Legislature: Some lawmakers urge Agriculture Secretary Voss' resignation. He failed to disclose $100,000 in farming income.

March 28, 1995|CARL INGRAM and DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Pressure in the Legislature built Monday for Gov. Pete Wilson to take action against his Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Henry J. Voss for Voss' failure to disclose receiving more than $100,000 in outside income from farming operations since 1989.

Wilson's aides questioned Voss Thursday--the day Wilson announced his presidential exploratory committee--about Voss' failure to report the income in his annual conflict of interest statements.

Voss, the target of a detailed complaint lodged by Consumers Union and Common Cause with the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to report the income, has hired Sacramento lawyer Ben Davidian. Until he resigned Jan. 13, Davidian was Wilson's appointee as chairman of the commission.

Although Voss is now reporting the income on newly amended statements, some members of the Legislature called for Voss' resignation because of alleged conflict of interest. Several others are saying that how Wilson acts on Voss should come under closer scrutiny since the governor is exploring running for President.

"It is a serious conflict of interest. (Voss) obviously lied on his conflict of interest statements, and I think the governor ought to fire him," Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) said.

Voss has declined to comment. Davidian said Monday that Voss relied on advice from the department in filling out the documents and downplayed the problem, saying that he and Voss are trying to straighten out the filings.

Under Voss' leadership, the agriculture department has taken controversial actions, including spraying malathion to kill Medflies to prevent them from infesting California's agricultural bounty. Katz, who has battled Voss over malathion spraying, charged that given Voss' income from farming, "he has a direct financial interest" in continued spraying.

"If you were to take out Henry Voss' name and put in Henry Cisneros or Ron Brown, the Republicans would be calling for his resignation," Katz said, referring to two of President Clinton's Cabinet secretaries who are under investigation.

"Looks bad," said state Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "How does a guy blow that (reporting all his income)? I don't understand it. I would think that if Wilson is running for President, he might think about an Achilles' heel or two."

Like Kopp, state Sen. William Craven (R-Oceanside), another member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was at a loss to explain Voss' omissions.

"I think (Wilson) should have a long talk with Voss, and then make a judgment," Craven said. "The governor will have to involve himself in talking to him."

Wilson was en route to New Hampshire on Monday, and was not expected to return to California until Thursday. Aides said Wilson has not spoken directly to Voss about his incomplete conflict of interest statements.

"Voss has been an exemplary Cabinet secretary," Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh said. "We're reviewing the facts of the matter and will have nothing further to add until we complete the review. . . . He has served us well and continues to serve us well, and we're going to continue to look at the facts of the matter."

Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Voss in 1989, and Wilson reappointed him to the $109,608-a-year post on becoming governor in 1991. A former president of the influential California Farm Bureau, Voss is the Wilson Administration's main link to the state's powerful agriculture industry, one of Wilson's largest sources of campaign funds.

According to the Consumers Union and Common Cause complaint, Voss failed to report all income from his various farming operations for five years running, starting in 1989. He also failed to expressly acknowledge ownership interest in a cling peach orchard in Stanislaus County, other than to list it by the identification number assigned to it by the county assessor.

At the same time, as food and agriculture secretary, Voss and his department fought efforts in the Legislature last year to end marketing orders regulating the size and quality of cling peaches and other fruits sent to market. Consumers Union opposes marketing orders, contending that the regulations serve to keep good fruit off the market and maintain higher prices that benefit some growers.

All elected officials and many appointed government officials must fill out annual conflict of interest statements, formally known as statements of economic interest. In the documents, officials are supposed to disclose all outside income and holdings. Penalties for failing to properly complete the forms range from fines to civil charges and criminal prosecution.

Voss amended his conflict of interest statements last month to reflect more than $100,000 in income from various farming enterprises, as well as private dealings with major food processors, including Del Monte, Smuckers, Sunsweet, Blue Diamond Growers and Tri Valley Growers.

Wilson spokesman Walsh confirmed that Voss met with top Wilson aides in the governor's office Thursday. Davidian attended the meeting with Voss.

Davidian said Voss originally filled out the forms omitting his income on advice from the department's staff.

Voss and the FPPC have refused comment on the matter. Davidian said he and Voss are again going over Voss' holdings and his conflict of interest statements. Davidian said Voss may amend the reports yet again in the coming weeks.

"It gets very complicated," Davidian said. "He started doing the amendments without help. He was trying to fix the problem. We're now making sure all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed. I think what you'll find (is) it is not a very big deal."

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