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California and the West

Firm's Free Movie Passes for Officials Raise Concerns

Politics: Critics fear Edwards theater chain could benefit from gifts. But officeholders say that isn't so.

November 02, 1998|NANCY WRID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you're a moviegoer, it's better than a gold card.

You flash it at the door and you're in.

The card--good for a year of free, unlimited movie viewing for you and three guests at any Edwards cinema--comes in the mail with the invitation: Enjoy!

Here's the rub--you probably can't get one.

But public officials in at least three counties, from U.S. representatives to mayors, have enjoyed the privilege of free moviegoing for decades. They are among the thousands of Southern Californians--from movie tycoons to a fishmonger and a nun--whose names are embossed on these precious pieces of plastic issued by Edwards Theatre Circuits Inc. and other chains.

Yet because politicians act on the public's behalf, at times deciding multimillion-dollar matters affecting the largest California-based theater chain, their use of the Edwards open-ended movie cards has become a matter of public, and at times legal, concern.

It is legal for public officials to accept the passes, as long as they report the gift to the state Fair Political Practices Commission and do not use them for more than $290 worth of yearly movie admissions.

The passes are part of a culture of political gifts--of goodwill perquisites showered on public officials that also encompass tickets to amusement parks, racetracks and pro sports events as well as auto parts and the occasional holiday ham.

The practice has become so entrenched that, in the case of the movie cards, some politicians have come to feel entitled to them, openly soliciting passes on official letterhead stationery.

A vivid picture of the practice has emerged in documents produced during the discovery phase of an unrelated civil lawsuit now underway in Orange County Superior Court by former Edwards employees. Some examples:

"If you are still issuing the annual pass," wrote Huntington Beach City Councilman Dave Garofalo at the end of 1996, "I wanted to let your office know that I had not received my 1997 pass as of yet. If they are still available, please forward it."

"We at the City of Cerritos have been most honored to have received guest passes to Edwards Theatres for the past three years. . . . With your indulgence, I should like to present the names for this year," Assistant City Manager Dennis T. Davis wrote in February 1997, listing 13 city officials including himself, City Council members and other administrators, such as the public works director. (Cerritos officials said they did not request or receive passes this year.)

This time-honored practice is now under review by the company--the result, it says, of queries by The Times and questions from Southland city attorneys about the appropriateness of public officials receiving gifts from a company whose theaters are ubiquitous in Southern California.

The chain now has more than 660 movie screens. By 2000, it plans 82 new screens in six Southern California communities, some of which have given or will give Edwards millions of dollars in redevelopment money or loans to help it build.

Edwards executives say they are now looking at ways to track the cards' use and perhaps limit their value.

Right now, the value of the cards depends on how often they are used. For example, if a pass holder brings one guest to the movies once a week for a year, that would put the value at more than $700. In a Jan. 2, 1997, letter seeking 12 annual passes for city officials, recently retired Fountain Valley Mayor James D. Petrikin called the card "this generous gift which 'keeps on giving.' " Petrikin, who has moved from the area, could not be reached for comment.

Edwards executives defend the practice of giving politicians free passes as common throughout the industry and good for business.

It is difficult to tell how widespread the practice is: Edwards says it has never compiled a list of public officials with passes.

Shirley Grindle, an Orange County political activist who crafted one of the toughest political-gift bans in California, is outraged.

"It's legalized bribery, that's exactly what it is," Grindle said. "It is this mind-set that elected officials have, that they are almost entitled to this stuff, when they all know that the only reason that it's being offered or given to them is their position."

There are at least 13 cities or communities whose officials have written Edwards on official stationary to solicit the passes, according to documents Edwards produced for the unrelated civil lawsuits. Those cities include: Cerritos, Corona, Del Mar, El Monte, Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Laguna Beach, La Verne, Poway, Santa Ana, Stanton, Temple City and Westminster. Edwards says that fire, police, health and planning officers also hold the cards in various Southern California cities.

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