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Ventura County

Hospital Director Is Criticized

Politics: Community Memorial chief's letter urged doctors to back Totten for D.A. Rival objects.


The executive director of Community Memorial Hospital asked staff doctors last month to support district attorney candidate Greg Totten, a move his opponent is calling improper and a possible breach of state and federal tax laws.

Executive Director Michael Bakst wrote an Oct. 9 memo on the Ventura hospital's letterhead urging nearly 90 doctors to vote for Totten and to contribute to his campaign.

A hospital consultant acknowledged on Tuesday that Bakst should not have used hospital letterhead but said that no tax laws were broken.

"We have all learned something," said consultant Harvey Englander. "Mike has learned he needs to get some personal letterhead."

Englander said he was aware of an Internal Revenue Service rule that prohibits tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations such as Community Memorial from participating in political activities.

But he said he does not believe that Bakst's letter violates federal or state tax codes because it was a personal request to the medical staff and not a hospital endorsement. He added that Bakst has repaid the hospital about $250 for postage and stationery.

"CMH did not participate in a political campaign," Englander said. "Michael Bakst did."

Nevertheless, the campaign manager for rival district attorney candidate Ron Bamieh questioned whether Bakst's letter crossed a legal line that could result in an IRS investigation.

"The question becomes whether or not they violated any laws," said campaign manager Brian Nestande. "But as a matter of practice, it would seem not a good policy to have a person in an executive position asking employees to contribute to any political candidates."

IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis declined to comment on the letter or whether the agency might investigate.

Meanwhile, Totten's campaign manager, Chris Mann, said the campaign had no knowledge of the letter. He added that reports of Bamieh's well-financed campaign have motivated many Totten supporters to solicit funds on his behalf.

Totten, the chief assistant district attorney, and Bamieh, a senior deputy district attorney, are vying to fill the seat of retiring Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury, whose term expires in January 2003.

Criticism of Bakst's letter is the latest salvo in an increasingly hostile race.

Bamieh came under fire last month for a prime-time television ad in which former state Sen. Cathie Wright of Simi Valley touts him as the county's "most experienced prosecutor."

Some prosecutors called the ad misleading, noting that several prosecutors have handled more cases than Bamieh. Bamieh said Wright's comment compared only his experience with Totten's.

Wright left office last year, but the 30-second spot identifies her as a state senator. Mann says it's misleading. But Nestande said politicians often use their titles after leaving office.

Wright came out in support of Bamieh after he announced plans to run against Totten, who is supported by Bradbury.

In 1989, Bradbury's staff investigated allegations that Wright had tried to persuade police and judges to erase her daughter's 27 traffic tickets. Since then, she has been a frequent critic of him.

"I don't want to see the district attorney's office run the way it has been run," Wright said recently. "And I'd like to see someone who is not handpicked by Bradbury."

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