Richard T. Hanna, a maverick former congressman who served as Orange County's sole Democratic voice in Washington for 12 years only to end up ensnared in a bribery scandal, has died.
Hanna died of a heart attack on his 87th birthday Saturday in Tryon, N.C., where he had lived for several years.
"He was a driving force in Democratic politics," said Dick O'Neil, chairman of the Orange County and state Democratic Party while Hanna was in office from 1962 to 1974. "He was the leader--the first Democrat representing Orange County in Congress."
Howard Adler, who served as Hanna's legislative assistant from 1966 to 1974, described him as "an incredibly successful politician with a great sense of humor and a moderate point of view," and added, "He probably was the most personable politician the county ever had."
Hanna's political legacy, however, was stained by the "Koreagate" scandal. Three years after retiring from Congress, Hanna became the only politician to be indicted in the case. He eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bribery by accepting nearly $250,000 from Tongsun Park, a South Korean businessman. The congressman helped Park obtain and keep his status as the exclusive agent for the purchase of surplus U.S. rice for South Korea.
Hanna served a year in federal prison.
"Yes, I've made some mistakes," Hanna said in a 1978 interview. "I regret them and I feel I've let myself down and . . . let down other people. But I would hope they would remember the whole story; I would hope people would remember that I was an active and . . . effective congressman."
Nicknamed "the little leprechaun" because of his Irish background and short stature, Hanna was born the son of a miner in Kemmerer, Wyo., on June 9, 1914, and moved to California with his family in 1923. After serving in the Navy Air Corps during World War II, he set up a law practice in Orange County. He was first elected to the state Assembly in 1956.
As a state legislator, Hanna took a deep and abiding interest in education and was instrumental in establishing both UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton in Orange County. He also was largely responsible--both as an assemblyman and congressman--for securing funding for the construction of Dana Point Harbor.
As a congressman, Hanna served on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and the Banking and Currency Committee. During that time, he often spoke of the looming significance of Asia and the Pacific Rim--observations that only now are appreciated.
"He was the first major public official to articulate the concept of a Pacific community," Adler said. "During a time when everything was still focused on Europe and the Cold War, he believed that California would become a gateway for Asia."
After his close association with an Asian businessman, which eventually led to his political undoing, Hanna decided not to run for reelection in 1974, and left California because of family problems.
Hanna is survived by his wife, Doris; three daughters; Kimberly H. Dicus of Memphis, Tenn., Lydia H. Thornton of Washington, D.C., and Pamela Hanna of Tryon, N.C.; and one grandson.
The congressman has been cremated and his ashes will be spread in the ocean off North Carolina in a private ceremony.
Times staff writer Daniel Yi contributed to this story.