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Prominent Lawyer Charged With Making Illegal Gifts

Pierce O'Donnell is accused of donating to the mayor's campaign in others' names, then repaying them. Other attorneys also charged.

June 02, 2004|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Three Los Angeles attorneys, including prominent lawyer Pierce O'Donnell, have been charged with making illegal contributions to Mayor James K. Hahn in his 2001 political campaign.

O'Donnell faces 26 misdemeanor charges of making contributions in other people's names, which could result in a maximum sentence of 13 years in prison. O'Donnell allegedly gathered $25,500 in contributions for Hahn's campaign -- in order to comply with the legal limit of $1,000 per contributor -- and then reimbursed the donors, in violation of state law.

O'Donnell said Tuesday that his was not a case of pay-to-play -- the exchange of political contributions for government work.

"I never got a chicken dinner from Mayor Hahn," he said.

Attorney Neil Sacker was charged with two counts and could be incarcerated for a year. Linda Fraser, a lawyer who was a secretary in the firm O'Donnell & Shaeffer, faces one count and up to six months in jail.

The other five defendants are O'Donnell's personal trainer, David Bernstein; personal secretary, Dolores Valdez; the firm's office administrator, Else Latinovic; her mother, Anita Latinovic; and legal secretary Hilda Escobar.

"He [O'Donnell] said, 'Donate X number of dollars to the campaign,' " said district attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons. "And then he paid them back. That's against the law."

Hahn said Tuesday that he had done everything he could to make sure people donated legally and that he had no way of knowing whether contributors complied with the rules.

O'Donnell's attorney, George O'Connell, said outside court Tuesday that the criminal case should have never been filed.

"We're disappointed that the district attorney's office decided to file this misdemeanor case," he said. "These are technical violations of the government code. They are really never brought as criminal cases. They are handled administratively, and we would have hoped that's the way this case would have been charged."

The district attorney's office filed the criminal complaint May 20, but a judge sealed it at O'Donnell's request to allow him to finish trying a civil lawsuit. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patricia M. Schnegg unsealed the complaint Tuesday.

The case against O'Donnell and the other seven is similar to felony indictments that Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley secured last year against an executive in developer Alan Casden's company and several of his subcontractors. John Archibald, vice president of Casden Properties, and the subcontractors are accused of trying to get around campaign finance limits by soliciting donations from friends and relatives and then reimbursing them.

Felony charges were not filed in the O'Donnell case because there was no evidence of conspiracy, Gibbons said.

O'Donnell's firm does not have a contract with the city of Los Angeles to perform legal work, according to the city attorney's office. O'Donnell said the last time he represented the city was in the 1980s, when he won a case to stop a state prison from being built on the Eastside. In the 1990s, O'Donnell said, he sued the city on behalf of a group of developers over the construction of City Hall East.

Court records show that O'Donnell & Shaeffer is one of five law firms of record in a class-action lawsuit in San Diego County Superior Court against El Paso Corp. and Sempra Energy.

The records also show that another firm, Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack, has a contract to represent the city of Los Angeles, one of multiple plaintiffs in that lawsuit.

Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Dave Demerjian, who runs the public integrity division, said one possible motive for the alleged crimes was O'Donnell's relationship with Hahn.

"It may be a personal thing with Hahn," Demerjian said. "He could be a friend of Hahn's. That's always a possibility."

O'Donnell said he had always supported Hahn but did not consider himself a friend. "He has been an excellent public servant," the lawyer said. "Other than that, I am just not a friend of Jimmy's."

O'Donnell has cooperated with the investigation and will continue to do so, according to his law firm.

"He looks forward to a swift and just resolution of this case so that he and this law firm can continue to practice law and represent our clients," said Craig Parsons, spokesman for O'Donnell & Shaeffer.

O'Donnell, 57, of Montecito, has represented Lockheed Martin, Bridgestone/Firestone, DreamWorks and MGM. A graduate of Georgetown and Yale, he has written five books and has represented several other cities, including Pasadena and Anaheim.

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission began the investigation when it received a tip from the California Fair Political Practices Commission, law enforcement sources said. The district attorney's office filed the case May 20 because the statute of limitations was about to expire, Gibbons said.

Prosecutors said O'Donnell was a major contributor to Democrats who was helping Hahn's campaign. The donations were made between May 22 and May 25, 2000, and on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22, 2001, according to the district attorney's office.

"He's long been a major figure in Democratic politics in the city of Los Angeles and the state," Gibbons said.

The city's campaign-finance laws limit contributions to $1,000 a person for citywide contests and $500 for council races. City records show that at least 21 people linked to O'Donnell's law firm made contributions of $1,000.

The defendants are due in court June 17. The district attorney's office has recommended bail of $13,000 for O'Donnell, $8,500 for Valdez and $500 to $1,000 for the others. The possible sentences are 13 years for O'Donnell; 8 1/2 years for Valdez; one year for Sacker, Bernstein and Else Latinovic; and six months for Anita Latinovic, Fraser and Escobar.

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