Sergio Sanchez, the former Salinas city councilman, is on a mission to restore the “safe and sane” fireworks stands that have traditionally popped up at major intersections every June as Independence Day approached, and he says he is tired of having his motives questioned.
“No, I am not being paid by anyone,” he said a couple of months ago. “Why does everyone keep asking me?”
The simple answer: W. Patrick Moriarty.
Some members of the Salinas City Council are too young to remember Moriarty and the cloud of corruption that he spread across California in the late 1970s and mid 1980s while he headed the nation’s largest fireworks manufacturer, Red Devil Fireworks, then based in Anaheim.
Moriarty was briefly imprisoned for fraud and corruption but escaped serious time by serving as a key government witness in prosecutions that led to convictions of a dozen politicians, bankers and Moriarty associates. His actions also prompted a sweeping but largely unsuccessful investigation into corrupt practices within the state Legislature.
In 1982, campaign contributions and other inducements from Moriarty led the Legislature to pass legislation that would have banned California cities from outlawing safe-and-sane fireworks. That would have instantly enabled Moriarty and his few competitors to begin selling their Fourth of July packages in Los Angeles and other large cities where all fireworks are banned.
FBI agents, who had already been investigating Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in earnest, thought they had hit the jackpot when they obtained a 1982 letter in which one of his closest associates said Brown wanted Moriarty to provide $18,500 in campaign contributions for six Democratic candidates for seats in the Assembly. The money was collected and distributed but Brown denied any knowledge of it. He was never charged with a crime in connection with Moriarty’s activities though it was established that he had lobbied local officials around the state to support legalization of Moriarty’s products.
Ultimately, at the urging of fire marshals around the state, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill.
At one point, numerous state legislators were believed to have retained defense lawyers because of the Moriarty probe but the investigation fell short of expectations because of the difficulty proving a direct link between illegal campaign contributions and legislative action. Prosecutors also complained in court documents that their star witness seemed to be protecting some of the key targets.
Moriarty’s long gone from the fireworks business but the Red Devil name remains as a brand of another large fireworks outfit, TNT. That company along with Phantom Fireworks spent more than $80,000 to finance a petition drive intended to reverse Salinas’ fireworks ban. (A TNT representative and the key lobbyist for the California fireworks industry started subscribing to the Partisan this week, possibly in anticipation of this article.)
The Salinas City Council tonight, Feb. 9, will be faced with the decision of either reversing its unanimous ban on fireworks or putting the measure to a public vote as part of the June 7 ballot.
There will be considerable pressure on the council to back down and legalize fireworks. There will be Sanchez, waving the pro-fireworks banner, and he’ll be joined by some of the non-profits that take in serious money by selling fireworks each summer. Their strongest argument may be that the county elections office has estimated the June ballot measure would cost the city as much as $280,000.
What do I think? First, I think the number from the elections office sounds high. Way high.
Second. The Salinas fire chief, Ed Rodriguez, wants the ban to stay in place. He says, “There’s nothing safe or sane about a firework that can reach thousands of degrees in temperature.” I think no amount of money from the fireworks industry is going to change that.