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  • Go back to Tracker -- Fall 1998


    Litigating for Dollars
    By Dan Morain
    Los Angeles Times, Sacramento bureau

    Work may expand to fill time. But the opposite is more often true for newspaper reporters. Deadlines squeeze our work.

    So it was when I was assigned to pick through the campaign finances of the Republican candidate for governor in California, Attorney General Dan Lungren. I was to start the project in June and have the piece ready for publication by the first week in October. That was plenty of time, I thought. There would even be time to take a family camping trip.

    Outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson and the state Legislature had other ideas. They busied themselves and me with their annual summer rite of fighting over the state budget and rushing end-of-session votes on 1,000 bills or so. The fun didn't stop until Sept. 1.

    Then, my editors and I figured I would have time to do a quick piece on Lungren and his tobacco industry connections. That ran in the middle of September. I was left with three weeks to pick through the finances and the record of a big-state, major candidate who, if he had won, would have been an instant player nationally. I was getting a little nervous.

    I've always admired reporters who work on a single project for six months, or longer. My admiration is not so much for the finished product, impressive though it may be, but for how they fend off assignments along the way. I've never learned the trick. I suspect I'm not alone. Most of us are under pressure to write more-better-faster.

    So here's my suggestion: Do what you can do. Understand the reality of ever-tighter deadlines and pare back.

    After the panic subsided into dull thudding anxiety, I called my editor in L.A., Linda Rogers, to ask no plead for help. She took pity and got another editor to loan a hotshot reporter named Jeff Leeds for two weeks. The story could not have been done without him.

    The clips weren't much help. Lungren was in the news often during his eight years in office. But there were only a handful of solid pieces about his record one in my paper during his first term and another in the San Diego Union more recently. No one had compared his record against the sources of his campaign donations.

    Our formula, worked out with the story editor, Tim Reiterman, was simple: Identify the big donors and find examples in the public record where he had taken actions that benefited those donors.

    The big story would have been a quid pro quo. But big corporations and big-time politicians generally are too smart to leak memos spelling out such arrangements. Even if there were such dealings, we'd never discover them in three weeks.

    Our goal was more modest. We simply tried to connect a few dots. If we could come up with enough dots, we could provide readers with insight into one facet of the candidate, one that we hoped would be telling.

    The lead summed up our conclusions: "As attorney general for the past eight years, Dan Lungren has made no apology for accommodating big business. Now that Lungren is campaigning to become governor, business is helping him out."

    In California, there are no limits on the size of the campaign donations. That may not make for good government, but this anything-goes standard can make a reporter's life much easier. Checks of $100,000 from a single source are common here. Given the size of the donations, it's not too hard to draw conclusions about who a candidate's friends are.

    The sheer volume of the donations was daunting, however. Lungren raised $20 million in his losing campaign. And he wasn't even considered a particularly good fund-raiser.

    Since most of Lungren's campaign finance reports weren't on-line, pawing through them page after page, putting most of them into a database and categorizing them by industry were the most labor-intensive tasks. The Times' computer expert Dick O'Reilly tried to help. But in the end, the reporters ultimately spend the hours it requires to cull through the names of donors, identify their affiliations and come up with totals from industries and categories of donors.

    From our sources, we gathered tips. A few of the leads made it into the story. Most, however, would have taken too much time to follow. Given the deadline, we homed in on what we felt reasonably sure we could nail down.

    Fortunately, much of what an attorney general does is public. For the purposes of our story, Lungren's most obvious public acts involved litigation. I'm not one to overlook the obvious, especially when time is short.

    Some of his donors had been targets of lawsuits, and some of the suits were settled for less than Lungren might have extracted. California's wine industry, for example, was the target of a suit earlier in his tenure over lead in the foil caps around corks.

    Lungren's deputies had recommended he settle for $3 million. Lungren dropped the case for $900,000 most of which was spent on an industry ad campaign telling wine drinkers to wipe bottles off before they poured and the industry's promise to stop using lead in the foil.

    Lungren tapped wineries for donations. Gallo was the biggest of the group, at $223,000 during his years in office.

    In some instances, we found, actions not taken can be relevant to a campaign finance piece. The Lungren administration took a minimalist view of its role in enforcing civil law. Lungren passed up opportunities to sue to enforce California's many environmental protection laws. In one such instance, the potential targets gave no donations. But the law firm that represented a company that had been under scrutiny was among Lungren's closest supporters, and a significant donor.

    Lungren, like all attorneys general, filed amicus briefs which declare, with justification, support for a certain side in a ruling with state and federal appellate courts. Lungren's press office provided most of them. Courts also keep them on file.

    We picked one example: a brief in which Lungren urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take a narrow view of the Endangered Species Act and warned that vast tracts of land would be affected if the court sided with the Clinton administration's view.

    In the campaign, several of Lungren's six-figure donors were developers and timber companies with extensive land holdings that include habitats for endangered species. These developers were referred to in the brief.

    Of course, we quoted landowners as saying they donated because of Lungren's overall philosophy, not because of any one act he took. However, a reader could surmise that if he were elected governor, Lungren would take a similarly restrictive view of the Endangered Species Act to the benefit of landowners.

    Attorneys general also produce opinions that interpret various laws. The opinions are available at law libraries. Some are on Web pages kept by attorneys general.

    I saw little of direct relevance in the opinions. But Leeds took a look, too, and found a great detail the "Angels in the Outfield" case. Lungren's opinions section held that a public school that sold advertising space on the outfield fence of its baseball field was obligated to sell space to a man who wanted to post the 10 Commandments.

    I thought it was an odd holding, but not part of a piece about campaign finances. Leeds, however, had written about the controversy in the past. When he looked through Lungren's campaign finance statements, he recognized the man who wanted to post the 10 Commandments as a Lungren donor. The man had given Lungren $2,100 before the opinion was issued and $5,000 afterward. He told Leeds that the contributions weren't linked to the opinion. Rather, he said, he supported Lungren's philosophy. Altogether, Lungren collected more that $400,000 from wealthy conservatives, many of them Christians who might have appreciated Lungren's views, as reflected in the Angels in the Outfield case, on the separation of church and state.

    The piece, running at more than 60 inches, included several more examples of instances where Lungren took actions and beneficiaries gave him money. It also included a chart listing the largest donors and likely reasons they supported Lungren.

    There was no allegation or evidence of quid pro quo. That wasn't the point. If we had more time, Leeds and I would have followed many more tips and hunches. Perhaps some would have panned out. Maybe the story would have been tougher, but given the short time we had, we did what we could do.

    As for that camping trip, maybe next summer.

    Dan Morain can be reached at (916) 321-4415

    or by email at Dan_Morain@latimes.com

    See Databases Pitfalls on page 7