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Orange County's School for Scandal

April 21, 1996|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

What is it about Orange County politics?

From 1974-77, an eye-popping 43 Orange County political figures were indicted, among them, two congressmen, three supervisors and the county assessor, according to the California Journal. One of the most extraordinary cases involved Dr. Louis J. Cella, a Santa Ana physician and hospital owner who was convicted of diverting Medicare and MediCal funds to finance political activities. Once ranked as California's most generous campaign contributor, Cella supported such politicians as ultraconservative Larry Schmidt, a former Orange County supervisor, and liberal Democrat Ken Cory, then an Assemblyman representing Garden Grove.

The '80s witnessed more political scandal in Orange County. In 1986, W. Patrick Moriarty, an Anaheim fireworks manufacturer, was convicted on charges of mail fraud related to illegal campaign contributions. Two years later, the FBI-run Sacramento sting snared former state Sen. Paul Carpenter, a Democrat whose district included parts of Orange County, on corruption charges.

The most recent scandal stems from Republican anxiety over a Democrat taking last year's winner-take-all election to replace former Assembly Speaker Doris Allen (R-Cypress). Republican Scott Baugh won the election handily, but the fallout from the GOP shenanigans that may have helped elect him has left a cloud hanging over new Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) and the Republicans' tenuous grip on Assembly control.

In the last six weeks, three Orange County political operatives have been indicted on charges stemming from the continuing probe of alleged campaign irregularities connected with the Allen recall. Those indicted include Baugh, who is charged with four felonies and 18 misdemeanors, all arising from his successful campaign to replace Allen. Three more GOP operatives, including a Pringle aide, have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from their role in putting Democrat Laurie Campbell on the ballot, to siphon off votes from another Democratic candidate.

What makes Orange County ripe for such political scandal? Is it a suburban landscape that lacks a geographical--and political--center? Is it a universal hostility toward government? Or a zeal to control its political levers?

Long-time observers cite burgeoning growth in the 1960s and '70s as the catalyst for power grabs by politicians and business leaders intent on influencing regulatory decisions. The corruption has been driven more by lust for political dominance than by personal greed. The questionable behavior surrounding the Allen recall fits this model.

Some Orange County politicians have blamed an aggressive district attorney for their troubles. In the '70s, GOP Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks waged war primarily against Orange County Democrats, among them Cella. Baugh has attacked current Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, a fellow Republican, for the timing of Baugh's indictment--four days before the March primary.

Orange County's climate for scandal has also been affected by a debilitating tension between fragmented governmental authority and monolithic political power--sometimes held by individuals like Cella or conservative magnate Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., sometimes by business elites like the Irvine Co. and Orange County's potent "growth industry," sometimes by political groups.

The thrust toward suburbanization in the '70s aggravated this tension by diffusing government accountability and responsibility. Growth decisions were driven by the private sector. "The ethics of business," said one observer, got confused "with the ethics of politics."

There is still no geographical center, no major urban hub, in Orange County. There is no Mayor Willie Brown or Richard Riordan--no dominant governmental figure. Orange County's bankruptcy, which resulted in felony charges against several officials, directly relates to the county's diffusion of authority and lack of oversight.

Conversely, except for a brief interval during the post-Watergate '70s, when Democrats held a plurality of voter registration, Orange County politics have been largely a monopoly of the Grand Old Party. Conservative Republicans hold sway over the county's state legislative and congressional delegations. Orange County Democratic Party Chairman James Toledano called the recent indictments "the logical consequence of absolute power corrupting absolutely."

But Republicans are not alone in their political shenanigans. During the high-water mark of Democratic clout in Orange County in the '70s, 17 campaign workers for two Democrats, then Rep. Jerry Patterson and then-Assemblyman Richard Robinson, were indicted and convicted on misdemeanor charges of false registration. Today, Toledano is under fire for his handling of a questionable $10,000 contribution. That's not surprising, say observers, because the county's Democratic Party, out of power and virtually out of sight, is "dysfunctional" and "nobody cares what it does."

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