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It was a last-minute law, passed by a lame-duck San Diego City Council in the waning days of Mayor Susan Golding's term, a troubled era in the city's history when the Chargers ticket guarantee and the Valerie Stallings-John Moores influence-buying scandal had rocked confidence in local government. So many pet projects sought by the council members had piled up by November 2000 that the mayor scheduled three additional council meetings to handle the demand. The November 14 agenda alone burgeoned to 142 pages.

For her part, Golding was pushing development projects for many of her past campaign contributors. She also used the last-minute opportunity to pack city boards and commissions with her friends and financial supporters.

But the rush was not limited to the mayor. The Fourth District's George Stevens, with two years left on his term, also took advantage of the legislative pandemonium to push through one of his favorite proposals: a ban on all liquor advertising on billboards within 1000 feet of schools, libraries, video arcades, playgrounds, and other places where he said minors congregated. Although there were serious questions about its constitutionality and the risk of expensive litigation the proposed law might spawn, the measure was put on the fast track.

Now, the law is under heavy attack from the billboard industry, which is pouring fuel on the fire in the form of a First Amendment lawsuit currently subject to secret settlement negotiations in a downtown federal courtroom. And the billboard owners have not stopped there. As the March 5 election approaches, their employees are contributing heavily to the campaign of Charles Lewis, the 34-year-old chief of staff to Stevens, who hopes to succeed his boss.

As of last Friday's official campaign filing date, Lewis had collected at least $2500 from a variety of employees, spouses, and others associated with Clear Channel Outdoor, the billboard-owning subsidiary of the giant radio chain Clear Channel Communications, which operates 11 stations in San Diego and 1200 more nationwide.

In addition, a giant pro-Lewis billboard has appeared by the side of state highway 94 and Euclid Avenue, visible to west-bound freeway traffic into downtown. The political advertisement, valued at thousands of dollars, based on the going rate for billboard space, has, as of earlier this week, not been reported by any campaign committee. Officials say the failure to report may be a violation of city law requiring all so-called independent expenditures be disclosed if they are incurred during campaign-filing periods.

At least seven Clear Channel employees or consultants and attorneys, from various cities in California, along with some of their spouses, have contributed the maximum amount to Lewis's campaign. One of them is Marnie Cody, an attorney based in the law offices of Richard F. Hamlin of Marina del Rey in Los Angeles.

During a telephone interview last week, Cody said she was handling legal work for Clear Channel, although not the First Amendment matter. "I'm not representing them on that. I'm representing them on the eminent domain cases, but I think there's another attorney handling that particular issue."

Regarding her contribution to Lewis, Cody said: "That was a personal contribution. I do not know him personally, but I am aware of his efforts, and I decided to make a personal contribution." Asked specifically what efforts she was referring to, Cody responded: "Well, excuse me, but that's my personal information, which I do not choose to disclose to you."

Former Culver City mayor Paul A. Jacobs, an attorney who works in the same office as Cody, also gave Lewis $250, as did his wife, Joy. They live in Culver City. Jacobs did not respond to a request for comment left at his office. Other Clear Channel employees listed as $250 donors to the Lewis campaign include Mark Stanley Herrera of Carlsbad, Edward Dato of La Mirada, Frederico Garcia of Pico Rivera, Clear Channel radio executive Michael Glickenhaus of San Diego, George Manyak II of Long Beach, and Steve Wagner of La Jolla. All contributions were listed as having been made on the same day, January 11. Clear Channel's Dato, to whom Cody referred all requests for comment regarding Clear Channel's role in the Fourth District campaign, did not return repeated phone calls.

In addition to Jacobs, a number of other Los Angeles-based attorneys who are listed as contributing to Lewis did not return telephone calls regarding their interest in the Fourth District race.

The city's campaign-finance law prohibits corporations from contributing to candidates' campaign committees. Employers also are barred from reimbursing their employees for contributions they make. Corporations can make so-called "independent expenditures" as long as they do not consult with the candidate.

Clear Channel's campaign largesse has caused a stir in the Fourth District, where nine other candidates are also vying to succeed Stevens, who has endorsed his longtime chief of staff. Is Lewis using the anti-booze law as a bargaining chip to pad his already sizable campaign war chest and win favorable treatment on the news and talk shows of radio giant Clear Channel? Has Stevens himself abandoned or soft-pedaled his long-standing anti-billboard advertising crusade to help his protégé raise campaign cash? And what is the nature of the secret courthouse negotiations, which have dragged on in the months since the billboard industry's case against the city was filed last fall?

So far, few are talking, and the questions are mounting.

Stevens didn't return phone calls, but his aide Lewis says he's just as mystified as everyone else about who put up the billboard on his behalf. "I don't know anything about it, other than we are getting a great response."

As for the contributions from the Clear Channel employees, Lewis argues he didn't solicit them and would freely vote against the company's interests if it came to that. In addition to the billboard-related contributions, Lewis has also accepted contributions from the owners of an adult nightclub on Kearny Mesa, outside of the Fourth District, who are seeking to expand. He says he asked neither of the groups for the money.

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