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— Last March, a mysterious last-minute political attack appeared in mailboxes throughout the Northern California senate district being contested by Democrat Byron Sher and Republican Patrick Shannon. The hit piece, "widely criticized as the dirtiest of the campaign," according to the Sacramento Bee, alleged Sher had been "cited for deadly toxic law violations" at his El Dorado County pear farm and featured a picture of a waste pit. The charges were devastating for Sher, an avowed environmentalist. But there was a problem, the Bee reported. "The picture was taken elsewhere and the allegations were false."

As it turned out, the hit piece failed in its mission. Sher beat Shannon, a former policy aide to Governor Pete Wilson, by 55 to 45 percent in the special election to fill a vacant seat. The two faced off again in November, and Sher's victory margin was even bigger, 58 to 38 percent.

But questions about the hit piece lingered. Because of a loophole in state campaign laws allowing a delay in the reporting of donations to so-called independent campaign committees, the source and amount of the money paid for the mailer was not revealed until early August. When the committee behind the mailer finally revealed its financial angels, a shock went through the district. The two main backers were real estate developer and Chargers owner Alex Spanos and Governor Pete Wilson. Spanos had contributed $35,000 and Wilson had given $65,000 from his own political fund. "The amounts and dates of the Wilson and Spanos contributions closely parallel the committee's spending," the Bee concluded in an August investigation of the incident.

"Here's an independent expenditure by the governor for one of his employees, laundered through an independent group so they can do a hit piece," charged Sher's political consultant David Townsend. "It's a way they get around these political campaign limits and it's a way to do these vicious attack pieces without having their name attached to it." Wilson's press office did not respond to requests for comment, and a lawyer for William Sacracino, the Sacramento political consultant who ran the committee with the innocuous-sounding name "Citizens for Responsible Representation," said it was neither Spanos nor Wilson, but Sacracino alone who decided how to spend the committee's money.

The Sher hit piece was not the only bit of political hanky-panky that March. Down in San Diego's 78th Assembly District, ex-city councilman Bruce Henderson was slugging it out with Tricia Hunter, an ex-assemblywoman and Wilson appointee, and lobbyist Scott Harvey in that district's Republican primary. Polls showed a tight race between Henderson and Hunter, until Harvey sent a hit piece attacking Henderson for, among other things, opposing expansion of San Diego's stadium without a public vote.

Similar to the case of the Sher mailer, a $10,000 contribution from Alex Spanos arrived at Harvey headquarters at about the same time as the hit piece went into the mail. Harvey -- who now is affiliated with Sullivan, Wertz, McDade & Wallace, the downtown law firm representing the San Diego International Sports Council in its battle to keep the stadium issue from going to a public vote -- denied knowing of the Spanos money and also denied there was any connection between the mail piece and the contribution. Though the money did not ultimately help Harvey, who placed third, Henderson was subsequently defeated by Hunter, who in turn fell to Democrat Howard Wayne.

Political observers in Sacramento have long admired the stealthy work of Spanos, who has poured millions of dollars into some of the nastiest campaigns around the country, yet managed to remain mostly above the fray. "He, or whoever decides to give his money away, works very closely with the Wilson folks," says one Democratic consultant who has followed Spanos's money for years. "This was a friendship apparently developed when Wilson was mayor of San Diego."

For Wilson, it has been a very lucrative friendship, indeed. In 1994 alone, Spanos gave the governor's reelection campaign $240,000 personally, and the general partnership that owns his football team anted up another $25,000. In all, records show, Spanos has given Wilson's political career more than a million dollars, as well as shaking down the bushes for even more money from his friends and subcontractors. As in the case of the Sher mailer and the Harvey campaign, Spanos has also given to legislative campaigns where Wilson has shown a special interest.

Why is Spanos such a heavy hitter? Some who know him say he enjoys the power of giving. Others claim that much of his money has been motivated by a clear financial interest: the future of the nfl. Indeed, Spanos is not the only nfl owner to give large sums. According to a December 1996 survey conducted by Denver's Rocky Mountain News, nine nfl teams gave a total of $91,000 to congressional candidates in 1996. The reason, the News reported, is that Congress will soon take up proposals to restrict team relocation and to eliminate tax breaks for stadium construction.

Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, founder of the Blockbuster video chain, gave more than $125,000 to the national Republican Party, along with thousands of dollars more in contributions to presidential and congressional candidates. But Republicans were not the only beneficiaries of nfl money.

In all, Democrats got $70,000, compared with $21,000 donated to the gop. The Philadelphia Eagles alone gave $32,000 to the Democrats. Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer gave $25,000 to Democrats, and the Denver Broncos contributed $16,000. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones contributed $5000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee just four days before the election.

nfl vice president Joe Browne claimed that owners "were being asked by the political parties to contribute in a way they hadn't been asked before... In the last two weeks [of the campaign], both parties were double-teaming and triple-teaming. If asked, we recommend [the owners] participate."

Critics say it's no coincidence that the Broncos and Eagles are especially heavy hitters. Both plan to build new stadiums that could run afoul of any new tax reform laws that cut off the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds used to build locally subsidized stadiums. The bill's sponsor, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has argued that tax-exempt stadiums represent an unfair government subsidy.

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