Bos, who once proclaimed that his only religion was “Pete Wilson,” wrote reams of Wilson-friendly coverage before becoming the mayor’s press secretary in 1977; he remained a top Wilson staffer and Copley intermediary until dying of a massive heart attack while playing soccer in 1991.
When Wilson beat California Gov. Jerry Brown for the U.S. Senate in 1982, Copley wanted another of her friends to replace Wilson as mayor. Democrat Maureen O’Connor, the tomboy daughter of a Mission Hills bootlegger, had been elected to the San Diego City Council in 1971 with cash from Robert O. Peterson, founder of the Jack in the Box fast-food chain. She later married him and announced she would spend virtually unlimited amounts of Peterson’s personal fortune on her mayoral campaign.
Copley was not just friendly with Peterson and O’Connor, they were investors together in Gustaf Anders, a La Jolla Shores restaurant heavily promoted by the Copley papers. Copley also dated Democrat Dick Silberman, Peterson’s Jack in the Box partner. Though their relationship later faltered for reasons never stated, the unlikely pair turned up frequently at La Jolla social and political events.
In the spring of 1983, Copley editors girded for battle. Their enemy: Roger Hedgecock, a self-styled progressive Republican who cast himself several degrees to the left of Wilson. He had assembled a battle-ready campaign force, run by young aide-de-camp Tom Shepard. Campaign contributors included J. David Dominelli, a remarkably successful La Jolla–based financial guru who claimed to be making making millions of dollars for his investors through mysterious foreign currency trades.
Despite her husband’s wealth and Copley’s backing, O’Connor seemed unprepared for the juggernaut that was the Hedgecock campaign. Though the Copley papers ignored the story, Hedgecock’s handlers whispered about the personal ties between Copley and O’Connor, helping to undercut the credibility of the paper’s endorsement. He beat O’Connor handily.
By the beginning of 1984, the odds had changed. Dominelli’s vaunted investment genius was discovered to be a Ponzi scheme, a house of cards the collapse of which robbed investors of their life savings. Revelations that Dominelli and his girlfriend, Del Mar mayor Nancy Hoover, had secretly financed Hedgecock’s 1983 special election victory drew Dick Carlson, an ex-TV anchorman married to a Swanson frozen-food heiress from La Jolla, into the regular election battle.
With O’Connor sitting out the race, the Copley papers swung behind Carlson with a vengeance. On April 20, the Union ran a story on its front page reporting that the county grand jury had heard testimony that $400,000 of unexplained funds had been found in secret bank accounts controlled by the mayor. It looked like curtains for Hedgecock. Except the story wasn’t true.
In May, Hedgecock filed a libel suit against the newspaper for $3 million, alleging that the Union had run the story “to impair and prevent” his reelection bid. “Just as I support the role of an aggressive and independent press as critical to the continued health of our democratic institutions,” Hedgecock said in a statement, “I also believe that when an individual member of the media abuses his or her very considerable power and steps over the line that divides thorough, independent scrutiny from intentional, malicious, unfair attack, someone must stand up and speak out.
“Not only did the editors of the Union refuse to correct their original errors, they continued to republish them, with the apparent objective of causing me and my family as much damage as possible.”
At first, Union editor Jerry Warren stuck to his guns, disputing Hedgecock’s repeated charge that the paper was out to get him and was using its news pages to do it. “From the very start, we approached this story on a professional journalistic basis,” Warren said. “The mayor apparently is approaching a suit as a political matter…We’re not running for anything…Of course we stand by the story.”
Added Herb Klein: “The suit by the mayor is not unexpected. He suggests motives which are contrary to fact. The timing of the action and statements and innuendos by the mayor clearly indicate the purely political aspects of his suit.”
Then, on July 25, the paper issued a full retraction. It ran on the front page under Warren’s byline. “The San Diego Union reported on April 20 and 21, relying on statements of sources close to the investigation, that the grand jury was probing allegations about Mayor Roger Hedgecock’s personal and campaign finances. The Union has since learned that key aspects of these stories were incorrect.”
Though the election was three months away, the race for mayor effectively ended that morning. In November, Hedgecock — by then under indictment in the money-laundering case — easily bested Carlson. At the same time, a swath of Copley clout and credibility was laid low.
Hedgecock was convicted in December 1985 and forced to resign, but the fallen mayor ever afterwards maintained that Helen Copley’s newspapers had railroaded him, and many believed him; the Union’s clumsy attempt to wield the J. David scandal as a cudgel had backfired badly. Once challenged so blantantly, the Copley papers found it hard to regain their bearings.
In June 1986, with Hedgecock vanquished, O’Connor was elected mayor. A high point of her tenure came when she appeared on a 1989 segment of NBC’s Today Show with Helen Copley and McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc. The three women expressed admiration for one another and inspected a million-dollar Fabergé egg Kroc had contributed to the mayor’s Russian Arts Festival. Host Jane Pauley gushed that the trio ran the city, and in some ways she was right. But, even then, time was running out for Copley Newspapers.
Evening Tribune circulation was falling rapidly — down from a 1979 peak of 133,711 to 116,694 — when Helen Copley announced in September 1991 that she was closing the paper down. “The Tribune is a wonderful newspaper and it’s not that we haven’t tried hard to maintain it as a separate and independent paper,” said a quote ascribed to Copley by the Tribune. Herb Klein, still Copley editor in chief, chimed in, “It was a difficult decision and one she has given days and hours and months to.”