Jeff Smith 7 a.m., March 30
Neil Morgan, the sex scandal, and the prostitute's pee
Golden showers, Jerry Brown, Helen Copley, nuclear plant, Supreme Court reversal, and a municipal court judge all figured into now-ailing newspaper editor's sex scandal crusade
Now that the fat lady of sexual harassment scandals is singing, is it curtains for San Diego Mayor Bob Filner?
San Diego and the world will find out more early this afternoon when heavyweight Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred steps to the microphones at a news conference where she is set to weigh in with a client and possible allegations against the besieged Democrat.
UPDATE: Alleged victim in Allred case is ex-Union-Tribune reporter and Port District public affairs person Irene McCormack Jackson, Filner's recently departed press spokesperson
Few local politicos have survived a full-bore San Diego-style scandal, and Allred's entry into the fray has odds makers adjusting Filner's chances.
As previously reported here, though they desperately clung to office for months, Republicans Roger Hedgecock and Uvaldo Martinez, he of twisted tongue, eventually fell to a barrage of legal and media onslaughts.
And then there was the strange and allegedly kinky case of Municipal Court Judge Lewis Wenzell, an appointee of Democratic governor Jerry Brown, which featured credit cards, a peeing prostitute, and a recall petition run on the front page of the now-defunct San Diego Tribune by its editor, local columnist Neil Morgan.
The year was 1981 and Morgan was editor of the San Diego Evening Tribune. The newspaper for years had been aimed at a literate working class crowd and hence toned down some of the more fervid pro-establishment and GOP coverage of its sister paper, the morning Union, edited by ex-Nixon White House press aide Jerry Warren.
Bogeyman to both papers was Democratic two-term governor Jerry Brown, who had killed their hopes for a mega nuclear power plant that San Diego Gas & Electric wanted to build in the California desert on the Colorado River near Blythe.
Under Brown, the state refused to allow construction of the enormous facility on the grounds that there was no "federally demonstrated and approved technology for permanent disposal of radioactive wastes".
Brown was plotting a run for the United States Senate in 1982 against San Diego mayor Pete Wilson, a special favorite of the city's GOP establishment and Union and Tribune owner and publisher Helen Copley in particular.
To clear the way for Wilson, Copley vowed to do what her husband Jim had done for Richard Nixon. In other words, virtually anything her editors could get away with.
And then along came Lew Wenzell, appointed in 1978 to the municipal court bench by Brown.
As the Associated Press reported in August 1981:
Municipal Judge Lewis Wenzell was charged Wednesday with eight counts of soliciting prostitution for allegedly having sex with five prostitutes in the past year.
District Attorney Ed Miller said the judge dismissed or acquitted "almost all sex cases which came before him" but the investigation turned up no evidence of official corruption.
One prostitute told the grand jury she had sex with Wenzell 20 to 25 times in the past three years.
Copley editors seized on the story, reporting lurid details from ladies of the evening who said that urination, known as "golden showers," had entered into the matter.
Hung in part by a mound of his own credit card receipts, Wenzell was convicted of three misdemeanors that October. But instead of making an expected quick exit, he appealed and vowed to remain on the bench, triggering daily banner headlines of condemnation from both Copley papers.
Not to be outdone by the Union, his in-house competition just across the hall, editor Morgan hatched a plan by the Tribune to launch a recall drive against the judge, complete with official petitions for readers to clip and mail in to the county's registrar of voters.
To obtain their copy of the "free" petitions, would-be signers were required to pick up a copy of the paper, helping boost circulation.
The comedy continued when the publisher of an alternative weekly paper weighed into the fight, as the Reader's Paul Krueger reported in July 1982:
Tribune editor Neil Morgan and Newsline publisher Larry Remer are slugging it out on the pages of their respective journals, championing opposing sentiments in the case of Municipal Court Judge Lewis Wenzell.
While the Tribune demanded Wenzell's recall for soliciting prostitutes, Remer questioned whether the postage-paid petitions that accompanied the Tribune’s editorial was an independent campaign expenditure (it is), and asked Newsline readers to mail in coupons for a "Recall Morgan" drive.
Morgan's front page efforts paid off, the recall eventually qualified for the ballot, and Wenzell, though his conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court, finally quit the bench in August 1982.
But Wenzell would have several last words.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in April 1985, Morgan subsequently got wind of a new book by Wenzell, and ran with an item about it:
Headlined "The Trash Pile," the item announced that Wenzell had "surfaced with a smear" and had written a book detailing the juicy but injudicious activities involving judges Wenzell knew during his four-year tenure on the bench. It was the kind of stuff that gossip columnists find irresistible.
Morgan, giving the impression that he had read Wenzell's manuscript, wrote that Chapter 6 "details feuds between older judges and judges who, like Wenzell, were appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown."
Morgan said that Chapter 9 details the "alleged sexual relationship between a married judge and a clerk, and of alleged after-court pot parties in another judge's chambers."
But on Wednesday, a gleeful Wenzell told The Times that the book and the stories about sex and pot parties in judges' chambers were a hoax.
Wenzell said that the information for Morgan's column item came from an anonymous letter written by Wenzell himself and mailed to Morgan. The unsigned letter urged Morgan to call Wenzell and confront the former judge about the book. " . . . I bet Wenzell would not deny what I have said," read the letter. But Wenzell said that Morgan never called.
"You know Neil. He wouldn't be able to pass up a good story. If there was any journalist in town who would publish a story without checking the facts, it would be Neil," Wenzell said in a telephone interview.
Reached in New York Wednesday night, Morgan said he is not satisfied that the letter is a hoax. Morgan said that he tried several times unsuccessfully to call Wenzell about the alleged book but was never able to reach him.
"I had other reason to believe that he was writing a book," said Morgan. "And to my reasonable journalistic satisfaction, I don't know if he is or isn't writing a book. I don't know which Wenzell to believe. . . . If I've been had, I'm the victim of a non-literary hoax."
As an unofficially certified San Diego outcast, Wenzel had the freedom to take on cases that more established local lawyers feared would run their career with the then-powerful Copley media dynasty, now owned by GOP hotel magnate Douglas Manchester.
In April 1997, Wenzell was a plaintiff's lawyer in a case before the state Supreme Court seeking to have a taxpayer financed San Diego convention center expansion plan placed before the city's voters, with approval requiring a two-thirds vote.
Copley, Morgan, Manchester and the rest of the city's downtown establishment were pushing hard for the deal and feared it might be rejected if certain details were subjected to public scrutiny. Observed Wenzell:
There is among the power elite and civic elite an attitude that the public is stupid, and we best know how to spend your money: "It's not your money in the first place; it's our money, and we know how to spend it better than you do."
And I think that kind of attitude just prevails. But for a newspaper that's generally conservative, I just don't understand it. I don't understand how people who are Republicans or Conservatives can get into a position where they can say the public is generally incapable of making decisions about important projects. So I don't understand that.
I have my own theories, but it involves some of the personalities, and I'm not sure that I want to bring this thing down any farther than it already is.
The Supreme Court turned down the appeal and the city fathers and mothers moved ahead with the expansion.
Following his bout with Wenzell, Morgan’s Tribune lasted another ten years. In 1991, with readership plunging, he presided over the demise of the Tribune. He got a new spot at the newly constituted Union-Tribune, but had little sway, and later was unceremoniously dumped by Copley.
In December 2004, Morgan and his longtime associate Bob Witty along with a few wealthy friends from La Jolla set out to challenge the city's print papers.
The pair, along with Barbara Bry, an ex-L.A. Times reporter and Harvard business school grad who married and later divorced millionaire Democratic La Jolla developer Pat Kruer, are part of the nonprofit "Voice of San Diego," a new website that sources say intends to take direct aim at the U-T's SignOnSanDiego.com Internet operation.
Bankrolling the venture is said to be a foundation run by La Jolla fatcat venture-capital investor Ralph B. "Buzz" Woolley, owner of Coronado's Glorietta Bay Inn, among other concerns.
Key participants in the new website have close ties to UCSD, including Morgan, whose wife Judith, a freelance travel writer, is a longtime member of the institution's PR advisory board; Woolley, whose wife, lawyer Ann Parode, is university counsel; and Bry, who once worked for Connect, UCSD's so-called tech transfer arm founded by the late Bill Otterson and overseen by UCSD extension dean Mary Walshok.
Morgan, said to be ailing, has since become the venture's non-voting emeritus board chairman. The outfit's latest major moneyman is Irwin Jacobs, the Qualcomm founder and billionaire Obama backer who is San Diego's richest and arguably most influential man.
Jerry Brown lost his senate bid to Pete Wilson, but is governor of California again.
More like this:
- Klein, Morgan U-T departures, considered together — Feb. 4, 2014
- Neil Morgan: Great Writer, Shrewd Operator — Sept. 10, 2012
- Back When — July 5, 2007
- The mysterious end of the Neil Morgan era — April 8, 2004
- Copley-Morgan Depositions Show Loose Reins at Tribune — Sept. 5, 1991