San Diego It's a politician's worst nightmare - even worse if you're a judge or sheriff, district attorney or city attorney. It's Proposition 208, the campaign finance reform initiative passed by voters last November, and it caps at $250 the combined contribution a company and its principals can make to any one candidate. It also limits to $175,000 the amount a candidate for government lawyer positions - such as D.A. or city attorney - can spend on a campaign. If it holds up in court, Proposition 208 will also prohibit lobbyists from contributing any money at all to such campaigns.
"If this thing takes effect, it's bye-bye to the good old days," says one well-placed political consultant. "Everybody's hoping the courts will open up a couple of loopholes. Otherwise, how the heck can a lobbyist get cash to these guys? If they plug this one too tight, I think it could encourage bribery, because the officeholders are going to get the money one way or the other. They've been selling access for years; you think they're going to change all of a sudden? Which would you rather have, legalized bribery or illegal bribery? I think it should be out in the open."
The limit on combined contributions is called Prop 208's "aggregation" clause, and it's drawing the most attention from anxious lawyers and lobbyists. "Aggregation is causing a lot of aggravation," observes Tony Miller of the Sacramento office of Washington, D.C.Pbased Common Cause, which sponsored the new law. Just how strict the law will be is subject to an interpretation by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission (fppc). The fppc has promised an official definition of aggregation within 90 days.
If law firms and their employees are limited to giving a single $250 contribution to candidates for judicial and district attorney races, the political clout they have enjoyed for years would be seriously diminished. For their part, candidates would see much of their fundraising base evaporate.
Take, for example, Casey Gwinn, elected San Diego city attorney last March with no opposition. Gwinn accepted thousands of dollars from employees and partners of major law firms, including Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, the firm representing the city in its battle with Bruce Henderson over the Chargers' contract. The firm has also repeatedly represented the football team in a series of unrelated civil suits. Before the end of last year, Gwinn transferred most of the money he collected in his city attorney campaign committee to another committee he used to pay for his 1994 district attorney campaign. Most of the city attorney money had been collected in 1995 and 1996 and was left unspent since he won in the primary. But Gwinn had a $19,000 debt to himself left over from his 1994 district attorney campaign.
So, relying on a confidential opinion supplied at his request by county counsel, Gwinn transferred $9730 of the city attorney funds into his district attorney account, and then personally paid himself that amount, plus another $9000 in contributions he solicited for his district attorney campaign committee in the last half of 1996. Such a scenario would be impossible under the most expansive interpretation of Prop 208, which took effect January 1.
For instance, Gwinn's statement shows that Charles Bird of the law firm of Luce, Forward gave Gwinn's district attorney campaign $250 on November 30 of last year, a month before the new law became effective.
Other lawyers from Luce, Forward - along with those from large firms such as Higgs, Fletcher & Mack and Seltzer Caplan Wilkins & McMahon - teamed up to make aggregated contributions.
Luce's Bird angrily told a reporter earlier this month that he "resented the implication" he saw in previous stories about his firm's contributions to Gwinn that "such a small amount of money" given by him and his colleagues had anything to do with the firm's obtaining contracts to do legal work for the city.
The influence of campaign contributions on officeholders has also become a hotly debated topic in the current race for Los Angeles city attorney. According to a study by the Los Angeles Times, incumbent James K. Hahn has collected $24,325 from lawyers at 29 law firms who have worked for the city. The paper reported that records showed the firms held contracts for legal work for the city worth more than $15 million, leading Hahn's opponent Ted Stein to charge that Hahn has a "flat-out conflict." Hahn denied the charge, telling the Times, "I'm going to ask people who are my friends to help. They know there's no connection. I don't guarantee anything because someone's my friend. I make sure there's competition for every contract." But an unnamed lawyer who had done work for the city claimed otherwise. "It's almost a requirement," the lawyer said. "I don't think that I'll necessarily get picked, but I think that I wouldn't even be considered unless I gave money. Sometimes I got work, and I found out it was obviously political and not on the merits."
San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst, who beat Gwinn in 1994, has raised more than $30,000 from a collection of special interests with business in the county, including cash from employees of several large law firms. In the last six months of 1996, more than two years before he faces his next challenger, Pfingst raised almost $4000. Four attorneys from the firm Seltzer, Caplan, Wilkins & McMahon gave a total of $650, a no-no under the strictest definition of the new law.
"The local law lobby is going to be highly disrupted by 208," notes the political consultant. "But they'll fight this all the way to the Supreme Court. They can't afford not to. You really need to have a friend over at the D.A.'s office in this town. Otherwise, you'll get killed [in court] by the bastards."
A local banker is also concerned about the limits. "I don't think anybody out there really understands how bad this is," he notes. "For example, who is a lobbyist? Anybody that goes in there and talks to an officeholder about an issue? Somebody's got to define this stuff. I can't give any money until I know what's going on." In addition to lawyers, Pfingst reported getting a host of contributions from trash haulers doing business in the county. Sandra Burr of Edco Disposal Corporation gave $250. Jeffrey Ritchie of Mashburn Waste & Recycling Services also gave $250, as did Victoria Tobiason of Ramona Disposal.