Embattled Mayor Roger Hedgecock and his chief fund-raiser, Nancy MacHutchin, have formed a committee to raise money to pay the mayor's mounting legal bills from his perjury and conspiracy trial.
A letter from MacHutchin, announcing the formation of "Californians for the Future" and seeking $50,000 in contributions by Jan. 31, was sent to 200 of Hedgecock's major supporters Tuesday.
But the fund-raising drive could create new legal problems for Hedgecock, City Atty. John Witt suggested Thursday.
MacHutchin, the new committee's treasurer, said in her letter that because theirs is a statewide committee, there are no limits to the amount that individuals, businesses or political action groups can contribute to ease Hedgecock's "incredible financial burden" from attorneys' fees.
Hedgecock is on trial for allegedly failing to report thousands of dollars in political contributions to his 1983 mayoral race. He also faces a civil suit by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which seeks $1.2 million in penalties for about 450 alleged violations since 1982 of the local campaign reporting law.
Witt said Thursday that, contrary to the contention in MacHutchin's letter, any monies collected for Hedgecock's defense would probably be subject to the strict limits of San Diego's campaign contribution law.
That ordinance limits contributions to a maximum of $250 in a single election and stipulates that they can come only from individuals--not businesses, unions or political action committees.
"The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has ruled that those (legal defense funds) are campaign funds," Witt said. "If they are campaign funds, then they come under the cognizance of our ordinance. Therefore, there are limitations."
At the moment, however, city officials have not decided how to respond to the Californians for the Future fund-raising drive, Witt said.
Hedgecock declined to comment on the effort Thursday, and his aides said they could not say how much he owes in legal fees.
Leo Sullivan, an attorney for Hedgecock, has been corresponding with the FPPC and city officials at least since June over whether contributions to a defense committee should be considered campaign contributions.
In a June 29 letter, the FPPC told Sullivan that "contributions to a legal defense fund for Mayor Hedgecock would count as contributions under the Political Reform Act and be reportable on the mayor's campaign statements."
Sullivan has argued, however, that such funds were not being collected "to influence an election or further a candidacy," so local campaign limits do not apply.
Further, Sullivan has questioned the constitutionality of applying campaign contribution limits to a legal defense fund.
"It's not constitutionally possible to limit the ability of someone to raise money for his own defense," Sullivan said Thursday. To do so, he said, would be "crazy."
He said he expected to resolve any differences with Witt without litigation.
Californians for the Future filed its statement of organization with the Secretary of State on Dec. 24. At that time, MacHutchin said the committee's principal activities would be to support candidates and ballot measures affecting California and San Diego.
Also, the statement said, the committee would "provide funds for payment of attorneys' fees and related expenses for Roger Hedgecock, the Roger Hedgecock for Mayor Committee, the Committee to Re-Elect Mayor Roger Hedgecock and any officers, employees and agents of said committees."
In an interview Thursday, MacHutchin said that the new committee, which Hedgecock will control, "can accept corporate and personal donations in any amount."
MacHutchin said she was "hoping for contributions from $5 to $5,000." Already, not quite two days after the mailing, the new committee has $300 in the bank and "immediate commitments of from $10,000 to $25,000," she said Thursday.
So far, Hedgecock's legal expenses have been paid from what was left of the $398,000 in contributions he received during his successful reelection bid last fall.
The letter MacHutchin sent Tuesday began:
"I'm certain you realize the incredible financial burden that Roger Hedgecock's trial has placed on him and his family. As a valued friend and supporter, you have helped many times and in many ways. Now your help is needed more than ever . . . "
"Your contribution of $1,000 or more will insure that Roger's excellent attorney services continue to be performed in a positive and enthusiastic manner."
In a postscript, MacHutchin noted: "State campaign law does not limit contributions. Corporate, PAC and/or personal checks may be accepted."
Witt was not so sure. "Well, I sympathize," he said of the defense fund effort. " . . . But so long as it is classified as a political contribution, it is affected by our ordinance, and the limit is . . . 250 bucks."