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Renewed Probe of Ex-Official Voss Urged

Government: Two groups cite new evidence and ask panel to reopen conflict-of-interest inquiry targeting former state agriculture chief.

May 02, 1996|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Two advocacy organizations demanded Wednesday that the state's political watchdog commission reopen an investigation into conflict of interest charges against former Agriculture Secretary Henry M. Voss based on what they say is new evidence.

A spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission, which last month found no evidence of illegal conflicts on Voss' part, refused to discuss whether the probe will be renewed, but said the commission will review the issue at its meeting today.

The demand for a new investigation was made by Consumers Union and Common Cause in the wake of disclosures of newly released official documents that allegedly link Voss with the award of $755,000 in state contracts in 1989-90 to major food processors to promote California agricultural products overseas.

At the time, Voss, the state's top regulator of California's $19-billion agriculture industry, was also a peach farmer in the San Joaquin Valley who sold his product to the recipients of the taxpayer-financed contracts.

In their revised complaint against Voss, Consumers Union and Common Cause reported that Voss attended department advisory meetings in 1989-90 in which overseas promotions of California products were discussed and contracts subsequently approved.

They included Blue Diamond Growers, $430,000; Del Monte Foods, $75,000; Sunsweet Growers Inc., $112,000, and Tri Valley Growers, $98,000.

"The companies that were getting money from the state . . . were marketing Henry Voss' products, peaches at least," said Harry Snyder, western regional co-director of Consumers Union. He noted that the program was abandoned about two years ago.

Voss, who resigned under pressure in April 1995, denied he had any illegal conflicts during his six-year tenure as agriculture secretary, but acknowledged that he had failed to publicly report at least $420,000 in outside income that his farming companies received from the agriculture industry. The FPPC staff has recommended fining Voss $21,000 for that failure to disclose, a punishment critics have assailed as too soft.

Snyder and Ruth Holton, executive director of California Common Cause, said documents they demanded from the state Department of Food and Agriculture under the Public Records Act were turned over to them at the close of business last Friday.

They said the records demonstrated, among other things, that Voss attended a meeting of the department's foreign market advisory committee in 1990 at which a recommendation was made to approve promotion contracts with companies that Voss last year disclosed he did business with. They said the contracts subsequently were awarded under Voss' authority as director, although he did not personally sign them.

Snyder, who last month in a blistering attack accused the FPPC staff of failing to perform a thorough investigation of alleged conflicts involving Voss, said the newly released records "make it impossible to explain away why there is not a conflict."

Snyder said the Department of Food and Agriculture told him that copies of the same documents were also sent Friday to FPPC investigators.

But Snyder said the FPPC investigators, who declined to comment Wednesday, told him no such documents arrived. He said he learned that the FPPC had subpoenaed the documents months ago, but that they had not been turned over.

Snyder said he learned that commission investigators were "very unhappy" that the documents may have been withheld during their investigation and become available only after the commission had, in effect, cleared Voss of conflict allegations. "It does look quite suspicious," Snyder said.

Commission spokesman Gary Huckaby refused to discuss specifics, but confirmed that the investigators' first knowledge of the documents came from Snyder. He said the agriculture department maintains that during the FPPC's yearlong investigation it "fully complied" with investigators' subpoenas.

Kevin Herglotz, a spokesman for the department, insisted that "all along this department has been working very closely" with the FPPC investigators.

"The department should have provided that information to the FPPC at the beginning," said Holton of Common Cause. "It is peculiar that they didn't provide it, but after a Public Records Act request, they come up with all this new information."

Holton added: "I understand that what they told the FPPC was, 'Oh, we just found these.' That's the age-old excuse."

Ben Davidian, Voss' attorney and a former chairman of the FPPC, said he had not seen the new documents. But he added that he believed they would not disclose "anything different" from evidence already examined by the investigators.

"I also anticipate that Mr. Voss will be cleared of any intentional wrongdoing, just as he was previously," Davidian said.

The two advocacy groups filed their original complaint against Voss in February 1995 and embarked on an independent investigation. They persisted even after the FPPC last month found no evidence of conflicts of interest on Voss' part.

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