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Sheriff Says Foe Offered Him a Deal to Quit Race

Politics: Lee Baca admits he tried to induce Block to step down, but says he didn't know he may have violated state election code.

April 28, 1998|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block on Monday accused one of his challengers, Lee Baca, of trying to circumvent the political process by offering the sheriff numerous inducements to step aside before the June election, a strategy that may have violated the state election code.

Block said Baca has offered to allow him to "retain my existing personal office, have a county car, a county driver and other perks, including becoming sheriff emeritus," if he quits the race.

And, Block said, in an "unprecedented extra bonus of the offer, I would be permitted by Baca to handle external affairs for the Sheriff's Department, such as lobbying the Board of Supervisors and other agencies for public funds while he ran the sheriff's office on a day-to-day basis."

According to the state election code, it is a criminal offense for a candidate to "advance, pay or solicit" money or other valuables to induce a person to drop out of a race. Baca acknowledged that he has been trying to make a deal with the sheriff--including providing him with a county car and driver--to accomplish what he called a "smooth transition." However, he said that he was unaware that his offer may have violated the state code.

"Obviously, I don't want to do something that's not legal," said Baca, one of three candidates challenging Block in this spring's primary. "What I'm trying to do is offer the sheriff a soft landing."

Baca, who is considered to be a leading contender for sheriff, said he remains hopeful that the two can still work out a deal in which Block will step aside and support him. "There should be a more graceful and more planned change in power than using the might of the electorate," said Baca, who serves as a chief in the Sheriff's Department. "The outcome would be the same either way: I will be the next sheriff of Los Angeles County."

Block said he believes that Baca's actions are improper.

"Baca's years of questionable maneuvering to entice my retirement and position himself to succeed me as sheriff have now reached a point where I find it necessary to break my silence and set the record straight," Block said. "This office is not for sale and neither am I."

Block's comments come at a time when he faces extraordinary opposition in his bid for a fifth term. Up to this point, his opponents have been lobbing barbs, taking issue with everything from whether the sheriff is healthy enough to serve another term to his management of the county jail system.

Fighting back, Block accused Baca of running a "manipulative" and "stealth-like" campaign.

"He is always looking to strike a deal," Block said. "In so many of his statements, he's a big advocate of how the people need to have a choice. He is trying to reduce the [voters'] choices or eliminate the choices."

The two other candidates, retired Sheriff's Chief Bill Baker and Sgt. Patrick Gomez, also took issue with Baca's approach.

"It sounds to me like he's doing whatever he can to get the edge," Gomez said. "It's inappropriate."

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Baker described Baca's strategy as "just an attempt to abrogate the electoral process and to orchestrate the selection of sheriff without getting the voters involved."

Such special deals have long been part of the process of selecting the Los Angeles County sheriff. In 1932, Sheriff William Traeger stepped down early to run for Congress and urged the Board of Supervisors to support Eugene Biscailuz as his successor. The move gave Biscailuz the edge as an incumbent in future elections.

In 1958, Biscailuz retired and strongly supported Peter Pitchess for sheriff. And in 1982, Pitchess stepped down early, making way for the Board of Supervisors to appoint Block, giving him name recognition when he ran for the office.

In previous interviews, Baca has expressed frustration that Block has not done the same for him.

"Pitchess gave him a real gift," Baca said earlier this month. "If Block were to do for me what was done for him, I would have nothing bad to say."

Baca said Monday that he came up with the plan to make Block a consultant at the urging of the sheriff's supporters.

"I get constantly asked by his supporters, 'What's going to happen to Sherm, what's going to happen to Sherm?' " Baca said.

In response, Baca said, he tells Block's supporters that if he becomes sheriff, he will keep Block on as an unpaid consultant.

"I'm not going to deny that I want to keep him involved," Baca said. "My goal is to retain his valuable knowledge and participation in the department. It is well known that he doesn't want to quit."

According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, it is illegal under state election code Section 18205 for a person to "advance, pay or solicit" any money or other valuables to induce a person not to become or to withdraw as a candidate for public office. Violation of the section carries a state prison term ranging from 16 months to three years.

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