Dirty Money

Congratulations to the Orange County district attorney's office! On Dec. 20, prosecutors convinced an Orange County Superior Court judge to sentence Anaheim resident Steven Craig Booth to 16 months in state prison.

Booth ran a small business that specialized in wrought iron. Prosecutors say he was also very good at masking his use of zinc, a chemical that prevents rust and can, in large doses, cause nausea and anemia. For 10 to 15 years, the DA's office says, Booth illegally sprayed zinc, dumped it directly into a storm channel behind his Stanton workshop and fabricated documents to mask the operation.

It was the harshest sentence against an Orange County polluter since 1992, when Marion Bruce Hale, then-vice president of an Anaheim paint-manufacturing firm, earned a three-year state prison stay and $26,000 in fines for illegally dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste paint.

We're glad the DA went after Booth, who never offered an explanation for his actions. But the prosecution reveals a fascinating—or maybe predictable—double standard: while prosecutors zealously pursue private individuals or small-business executives (Booth's Quick Sand Sandblasting and Metallizing employed fewer than 10 people and brought in total revenue of less than a million dollars a year) with big fines and even prison time, the DA rarely hits major corporations or government officials with anything harsher than financial penalties that amount to pocket lint. Even allowing that local investigators sometimes defer to other agencies with greater jurisdiction in many serious cases, this is still an impressive record of failure. Here are a few of the lucky rich:

Jan. 7, 2005: The district attorney's office settles a lawsuit against Shell Oil for $14.5 million as part of top cop Tony Rackauckas' much-publicized effort to hold oil companies accountable for contaminating the county's groundwater with MTBE, a carcinogenic fuel additive. No criminal charges are filed. The $14.5 million is about three-ten-thousandths of 1 percent of Shell's 2003 income of $41.4 billion.

2003: Thrifty Oil settles an MTBE lawsuit for $1.6 million. No criminal charges are filed.

2002: Arco settles with Orange County prosecutors for more than $8 million over MTBE groundwater contamination. No criminal charges are filed. Arco's parent company made a $8 billion profit that year.

2001: The city of Huntington Beach pleads guilty to knowingly allowing millions of gallons of raw sewage to leak from its decrepit sewers. Prosecutors initially seek felony charges against the city but reduce them to misdemeanors when city officials threaten to pull out of settlement talks. Rackauckas' office puts the city on probation for five years and fines it more than $250,000.

1998: Mobil Corp. pays $1 million after DA investigators find that fuel leak-detection systems at 40 gas stations have been intentionally disabled. No criminal charges are filed.

1995: The state fines Southern California Edison $1.9 million for improperly handling toxic chemicals at its energy plants, including the AEG plant in Huntington Beach. The case is settled in Los Angeles Superior Court; our DA never pursues a case.

1991: OC prosecutors seek felony charges and fines of as much as $1 million against the Metropolitan Water District agency for dumping hundreds of gallons of sodium hydroxide into Telegraph Canyon Creek. A judge reduces the charges to misdemeanors; the DA eventually drops those charges too, settling instead for the agency's promise to donate $250,000 to the UCI Medical Center.

Also in 1991: The South Coast Air Quality and Management District sues Bentley Laboratory Inc. in Irvine for the company's discharging of the cancer-causing substance ethylene oxide in the air. The DA does nothing.

1989: Shell pays $40,000 and agrees to clean up underground gasoline spills at nine of its Orange County locations. The DA initially charges Shell with 24 counts of violating state health codes and seeks penalties into the millions, but no criminal charges are ever filed.

A special medal goes to the Ascon/Nesi Hazardous Waste Dumpsite in Huntington Beach, whose various owners have been fined millions by the state over the years for its toxic essence, alleged to be the cause of a rare cancer that has claimed the lives of four children who played near the site. The Orange County DA's office has done nothing.



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