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Letter Mixes Money, Duties

An O.C. transit board member seeks cash for his city council race and offers confidential discussions about transportation issues.

September 15, 2006|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

A member of the Orange County Transportation Authority board sent out a letter this week asking recipients to help raise $1,000 apiece for his reelection to the Lake Forest City Council, at the same time inviting them to hold confidential discussions with him about transportation issues.

Richard Dixon said the link between the conversations and the contributions hadn't occurred to him and that, in hindsight, he regretted mentioning the two in the same letter.

"I did not connect those dots when I sent that letter out," Dixon said. "I can assure you they have absolutely nothing to do with each other at all."

The letter, which included an invitation to a $250-per-plate fundraising dinner at Antonello Ristorante, a popular Italian spot near South Coast Plaza, was sent to consultants and lobbyists involved in Orange County governmental affairs, Dixon said.

After noting that Dixon is seeking reelection and reciting his experience on the OCTA board, the letter states: "Please contact me if you would like to discuss any concerns or issues you might have regarding transportation. All conversations will remain confidential."

The next sentence asks recipients to serve on his fundraising committee, adding: "I will be calling you next week with the hope that you will agree to commit to raising $1,000 as one of my team members."

State law prohibits elected officials from asking for campaign contributions in exchange for taking official action. Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said the letter did not appear to have violated the law.

The invitation "is explaining what reality is, and that is, candidates want to receive campaign contributions from people they're benefiting," Stern said. "They don't send [invitations] to the average Joe; they send them to people who have business pending."

Stern said a section of the California code prohibits anyone serving on a non-elected board, such as OCTA's, from voting on any official action involving a donor who has given $250 or more, within a year of the contribution.

The transit agency, with a budget of $845 million this year, manages the county's bus and rail services, regulates taxis and oversees highways, toll roads and road improvement projects.

Dixon, who operates a health insurance business, was elected to Lake Forest's inaugural City Council in 1991 and currently serves as mayor.

Dixon said he did not send the letter to any contractors with business before OCTA. He said the intent of the letter was to inform people that he serves on an OCTA committee examining the agency's procurement process, which has been criticized for not being transparent enough, and he wanted to hear from people who have concerns about it. He said he offered to keep the conversations confidential to protect people from retaliation if they complained about the agency's purchasing process.

"Perhaps I would've been better served by sending out two separate letters," he said.

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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