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.
Courthouse observers remember the battle between former D.A. Ed Miller and Waste Management Inc. over a landfill the company wanted to build in Gregory Canyon, near Pala. ThenPcounty supervisor Susan Golding asked Miller to investigate Waste Management. After a months-long investigation, Miller released a report in April 1992 raising questions about the company's ties to organized crime. Waste Management denied it was linked to the mob and sued Miller in federal court, alleging he had violated its civil rights. The case was dismissed by a judge, a decision upheld by a three-judge panel last year, and upheld yet again by another appeals court last month. Miller was defeated by Pfingst two years ago, and the landfill has yet to be built. But the Miller report has haunted Waste Management ever since it was released, being cited by the company's opponents in countless battles across the country. One inside observer claims that the lesson has not been lost on potential contributors. "A lot of them give because they're afraid not to give. The district attorney - not that he would, mind you - can screw you up bad, as the Miller deal shows. He just took a gratuitous shot. And there's no way you can get back at him. That alone is probably responsible for half the money the D.A. collects. Contributors are scared to death. It's basically protection money, kind of like a tribute. When he calls you, you give."
Queried about the waste haulers' donations, Pfingst issued the following statement: "These are business people in our community and I am very proud to have their support." Fear is not the motivating factor for the donors to Sheriff Bill Kolender, most observers agree. But they see the old-boy network at work. "Billy knows everybody, and he knows things about everybody," says a county insider. "He's also got a pretty big circle of friends. And he does a few favors. Not illegal ones. Just lending his credibility to a cause here and there. It doesn't hurt to have the sheriff in your corner. People appreciate it, and they show their appreciation by giving him a tip in the form of a few bucks to his campaign. You can't buy him for that. It's just a nice little tip." The latest example of Kolender at his political best, observers say, was his appearance with Mayor Susan Golding at last week's highly touted face-off at the University Club with Chargers contract foe Bruce Henderson. After Henderson refused to hold the meeting without the press, Kolender, who accompanied Golding to the meeting, went into the hall and gave a series of interviews to reporters in which he characterized himself as a neutral observer and then proceeded to criticize Henderson and his performance. "That was pure Billy," says one acquaintance. "He sticks up for his friends."
Kolender, who was once famous for hanging out at Bully's East, the bar, steakhouse, pick-up joint, and political watering hole a few miles down the road from the stadium, has many friends in the sports world, some of whom contributed to his campaign fund in the last half of 1996, even though the sheriff won't face reelection for another two years. Among those giving the maximum $250 were beer distributor Ron Fowler, immediate past-president of the San Diego International Sports Council, and old-line real estate developer Malin Burnham.
In all, Kolender raised almost $5600 from friends such as Adnan "Eddie" Aladray, the expansive former appliance store owner who testified in 1989 that Karen Wilkening, an accused madam, had procured prostitutes for him. Wilkening eventually got 44 months in prison, but her notorious Rolodex, reputedly containing 500 names of prominent customers, never reappeared after it was seized by San Diego Police. Kolender, once chief of police, denied knowing Wilkening and called related allegations "bullshit." A grand jury investigating the case concluded that there was insufficient evidence to connect Kolender to Wilkening or the Rolodex. The jury also heard testimony of alleged police favoritism in the mid-1980s toward members of the Chargers, including ticket-fixing and what the San Diego Union reported as the "purported cover-up" of a shooting of former quarterback Dan Fouts. Both Kolender and his successor, Chief Bob Burgreen, denied the accounts. Fouts denied ever being shot.