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Donor's woes add to debate over crime measure

October 16, 2008|Michael Rothfeld | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In the coalition pushing Proposition 6, an anti-crime initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot, the person who has contributed the most financially stands to gain little and has become the campaign's biggest liability.

With a single $1-million contribution last December, billionaire and Broadcom co-founder Henry T. Nicholas III supplied most of the cash raised to date by proponents of the so-called Safe Neighborhoods Act. Then during the summer, he was indicted on drug, fraud and conspiracy charges.

Though he is accused of manipulating stock options, supplying customers with prostitutes and maintaining properties for cocaine and methamphetamine use and distribu- tion, Proposition 6's proponents say they see no reason to give the money back.

"The crimes that he's accused of are not the kinds of things we're dealing with," said Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), one of the initiative's authors. "We're dealing with street crimes that Californians are confronted with every day."

David Warren, a lobbyist with Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety, criticized the measure's supporters for keeping Nicholas' money after his indictment.

"Having knowledge that he has been indicted and not returning it is very hypocritical," Warren said.

Critics contend that the proposition would be too expensive and punitive and would abridge civil rights. They say its 60% increase in law enforcement funding -- to nearly $1 billion a year -- would steal money from education and other programs.

Some argue that the harsh new penalties would worsen problems in the state's prison system, now swollen with 170,000 inmates.

The longer sentences could cost the state $500 million for more prison space, according to the nonpartisan legislative analyst. And a requirement that the state reduce average parole agent caseloads from 70 to 50 could entail hiring hundreds more agents, each at a cost of nearly $123,000 a year for salary, benefits and a car.

"Do we want to take a chance on spending our money on policies that may make the problem worse?" asked Maureen Pacheco, a deputy public defender in Los Angeles County, at a legislative hearing last month.

Among other changes, the initiative would increase punishment for home invasion robbery or carjacking from the existing 15-year maximum to a possible life term -- and allow people who lie to the police about gang crimes to be prosecuted as accessories. But Proposition 6 also would direct some money toward probation departments and rehabilitation programs and create a commission to scrutinize rehabilitation efforts.

"Unlike other laws, it actually provides for oversight and monitoring so you can actually see what works," said John Lovell, a Sacramento lobbyist for several police groups.

It would take a vote of 75% of state lawmakers -- an unlikely event -- to roll back any of the initiative's provisions.

Runner said Nicholas is motivated by his half-sister's murder 25 years ago, but many of the initiative's other supporters have something tangible to gain if they succeed in persuading voters to pass the measure.

Police, sheriffs, probation officers and district attorneys, who have donated their money and lent their endorsements, would receive more for their agencies from the thinly stretched state budget. The measure would give an additional $365 million a year to state and local law enforcement and juvenile justice programs, bringing the total to $965 million, which would increase yearly in step with inflation.

Victims' groups would collect rewards if they helped bring criminals to justice, and money would be allocated to programs that help them. And manufacturers of crime-fighting systems that have donated to the campaign would win new sources of income.

The initiative would direct $2.5 million a year to sheriff's departments that use VINE, a victim notification system made by Appriss Inc., of Kentucky. The company and its Sacramento lobby firm, Warner & Pank, which also represents state sheriffs, have donated to the campaign. So have other clients of the firm who stand to benefit from provisions in the bill that could spur prison construction and the use of satellite tracking equipment on offenders.

Lobbyist Karen Pank said her public law enforcement clients made suggestions for the initiative, but her private clients were "not at the table."

"After they read initiatives that qualify for the ballot, they . . . make independent choices about something they want to see happen," Pank said.

Passage would give another victory to Runner, who with his wife, Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, both Republicans from Lancaster, penned a successful initiative two years ago that cracked down on sex offenders.

Mike Reynolds, who wrote the three-strikes law that voters passed in 1994, also co-wrote Proposition 6, along with San Bernardino County Supervisor Gary Ovitt.

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