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California and the West

Intrigue Stains Inyo County Election

Politics: News of a candidate's felony child abuse conviction, stemming from the death of his infant son 21 years ago, surfaces days before the election. He wins the seat, but questions remain.

June 14, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before the tempest erupted over Ervin Lent and his two-decade-old family secret, elections were pretty staid affairs for voters in the eastern Sierra's Inyo County.

Political excitement? Sure, there was the incumbent sheriff who was upset by an underling a couple of years back. And a few League of Women Voters' debates have gotten a bit contentious.

But no one can remember anything approaching the controversy triggered this month by an anonymous tipster who called local officials and reporters with a juicy bit of political intrigue: A little-known candidate for Inyo County supervisor had been convicted of felony child abuse 21 years earlier in the death of his month-old son.

Lent--the subject of the tip--began hearing the rumors just a few days before the June 2 election. He awoke on election day to find the bombshell about his past stripped across the top of the Inyo Register's front page, just in time for voters heading to the polls.

"I'm going to have to relive this now," Lent, a 45-year-old educator and first-time political candidate, remembers thinking. "I'm going to have to answer for it."

Negative campaigning and opposition research may be the norm in big-time California politics, but not in Inyo County, a popular pass-through tourist spot for hikers and skiers that has just 18,000 residents. Here, in the vast expanses of the state's second-biggest county, a few thousand dollars in campaign money represents sizable fund-raising.

"In the last 20 or 25 years, this would be the biggest [election] controversy that we've ever had," said Bishop Mayor Bob Kimball. "I can't recall anything like this."

Almost two weeks after the election, the controversy is still "the topic of every kaffeeklatsch in town," said Inyo Register editor Barbara Ferrey-Laughon. Lent's predicament has triggered communitywide soul-searching over an array of questions.

Is a 21-year-old offense, even a serious one, relevant to a political candidacy? Were Lent's detractors guilty of the kind of "dirty politics" more common in Sacramento or Washington than in a remote mountain community that the local mayor likens to Mayberry? Did Lent try to cover up the circumstances surrounding the death of his son, which initially led to first-degree murder charges against him and his wife? Did the media handle the issue responsibly? And who was behind the leak?

Whatever the answers, Lent managed to survive, beating the incumbent by 94 votes out of some 1,400 in his district to become the first Native American supervisor in county history. Many local leaders believe that the disclosure of the child abuse conviction backfired and actually helped Lent, earning him sympathy from voters who appeared disgusted with the hardball tactics.

"I think it registered with some people as a real smear campaign," said John Dailey, general manager for two radio stations in Bishop.

Said resident Pat Willis, who is active in Native American housing issues: "We see this kind of thing on national television. . . . But when you see it happening here in Bishop, you just say, 'Oh my god.' It makes us all sad inside because you hate to see the system fall to that level."

Nevertheless, the frenzy over Lent's election continues, as local reporters scramble for follow-ups, Lent threatens a libel suit and critics question whether a felon can be elected. (He can, county officials have verified, as long as he is not on parole.)

Some 90 miles away in Tulare County, where Lent's son died in 1977, prosecutors are even reviewing the original case to determine, among other things, how Lent appears to have gotten off without serving any of his 270-day sentence in jail.

"I'm sure this will continue till he takes office [in January] and way past then," said Ferrey-Laughon. "He wants to prove he's not a liar and not a bad guy per se, but I think people will continue to wonder what really happened to this baby."

Events From 21 Years Ago

Benjamin Andrew Lent died in April 1977, in Tulare County after what authorities determined was severe subdural hematoma, or bleeding in the brain.

Ervin Lent recalled in a recent interview that he had just returned home from a revival, where he was preaching as a traveling evangelist when his wife noticed that the baby wasn't moving.

"Being a minister, my first reaction was to pray. . . . He responded immediately, and we began to thank the Lord for deliverance," he said. But minutes later, he said, the baby again stopped moving. "It happened so quickly, we don't understand what happened," he said.

Lent said he took Benjamin to the hospital a short time later, but the infant died.

Lent said he still doesn't know how the child died. But police had their suspicions. The next day, they showed up and handcuffed Lent as neighbors looked on. "Here we are, all emotional about our child having just passed away, and the next day we are being arrested for murder," he said.

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