One day at the height of last spring's municipal election campaign, four people gathered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to talk about improving the chances that Compton City Councilman Floyd A. James would win a second term.
As Waters would later testify to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury, the strategy session was "a general meeting to talk about . . . how we were going to raise money, what the campaign was going to do, a general overall campaign meeting."
One idea captured everyone's imagination, Waters testified. She said the idea was to drum up support by giving voters a free record album featuring a fiery speech by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a national leader who enjoys particular popularity in Compton, where three-fourths of the residents are black.
As a veteran political candidate and campaigner, Waters said, "I thought it was a good idea."
Indeed, albums were offered in late May by the James campaign. Yet, how it affected the race is unclear. History only shows that after James was nearly defeated outright in the April 16 primary, finishing second to barely force a runoff, he won a sweeping victory in the June 4 general election by a margin of almost 2 to 1.
Because the albums were allegedly distributed in a way that Waters said "just isn't done"--in return for a promise of votes--James and Wright now face election-fraud charges that could not only oust the councilman from office but also send both men to state prison for as much as nine years if they are convicted.
Since being indicted in December, James and Wright have pleaded innocent, charging that the whole matter is a mix-up over interpretations of state election law. They are scheduled to appear on Thursday before Los Angeles Municipal Judge Xenophon F. Lang for a preliminary hearing.
James could not be reached for comment. But his attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., said, "I believe he's innocent of these charges and there's a good likelihood that we'll establish that."
Wright's attorney, Gerald Chaleff, added that his client "doesn't believe he has done anything wrong."
At Thursday's hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. Candace J. Beason is expected to outline the evidence against the two political figures, much of which shows up in grand jury testimony released last week to The Times and other members of the public.
Aside from painting a rare behind-the-scenes portrait of a political campaign in motion, the grand jury testimony sheds light on the role that Waters played in the bitter election, which affected a city not even in her 48th Assembly District. Her participation is doubly interesting because James had repeatedly accused his council opponent, Patricia A. Moore, of being a shill for the "machine politics" of Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), often thought to be at political odds with Waters.
"Merv and I get along much better than most people think," Waters said last week when contacted by The Times. "People like intrigue . . . (it) makes for good political gossip." As for her presence in the James campaign, Waters explained, "Being a black woman, I am called on all over the State of California, and this is what it boils down to." While she likes James "as a human being," she said she was not driven to back him by any shared political philosophy. And the fact that Dymally had endorsed the councilman's opponent "certainly would not be my high motivation for getting involved."
(The assemblywoman's son, Edward K. Waters, is among 10 Democrats vying for the 54th District Assembly seat being relinquished by Bellflower Democrat Frank Vicencia, the speaker pro tem. The district includes a portion of Compton. Two former Dymally aides are also in the race.)
James and Wright are accused of passing out albums to voters only if they promised to cast a ballot for James. Seven Compton residents told the grand jury that they had received a campaign mailer informing them of the offer and announcing that James had purportedly been endorsed by Jackson. Each said they responded by going to James' headquarters on Compton Boulevard, signing a pledge card and picking up their albums, sometimes in the presence of James himself.
"When I went in I showed them my piece of paper, she (a campaign worker) had me to sign it, she gave me the record, I waved at the man in the back, who was Mr. James, and I went on home, put my record on and played it," resident Otis Evans testified.
'People Respect Jackson'
Added Francesca M. Houpe, a Compton word-processing teacher: "A lot of people respect Jesse Jackson. And to get that album would have been a very good thing for them. And it was a powerful injustice (against challenger Moore), I felt."
A second charge accuses James and Wright of orchestrating a last-minute smear letter that falsely claimed Moore had been disqualified. While Moore had, in fact, been declared iNeligible early in the campaign, Moore was reinstated when election officials cleared up a clerical error involving her home address.
Lastly, James and Wright are accused of trying to cover up their involvement in the letter by mailing it under the bulk postal permit of an unrelated campaign organization.
When Waters appeared before the 21-member grand jury on Dec. 10, she explained that "campaigns normally do something to increase interest, whether it's a potholder, calendar, or pencils and pens, some kind of speciality item, usually it's helpful in a campaign in getting (voter) interest."
Prosecutor Beason asked the assemblywoman who at the Hyatt meeting first brought up the Jackson album idea. Waters initially replied, "I don't know," but then elaborated that "I very well could have.
Albums 'a Good Idea'
"Because I think albums are a very good idea," Waters continued. "And I recall one time that I thought about using a Martin Luther King album. So I could very well have . . . initiated that."
Waters had served as chairwoman of Jackson's California presidential campaign and knew that Los Angeles-based MCA Records had produced an album containing his emotional "Our Time Has Come" address to the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco.
So, Waters said, it was decided that she would contact MCA. "Because of my relationship with Jackson, they just felt that I would be able to find out how you could get these promotional albums, and I did make contact."
Waters testified that she had conversations with "three or four" people in the record industry, including MCA Chairman Lou Wasserman and Irving Azoff, president of the record division. Through Azoff, she eventually made arrangements to purchase 2,347 Jackson albums. Because the albums were meant to be promotional and not offered for sale to the public, MCA charged Waters $2 for each record although the retail price was $8.98, according to other grand jury witnesses.
After sales taxes were included, Waters' own campaign organization wrote a $5,000 check to MCA Distributing Corp. and immediately donated the entire purchase to James' campaign.
'Loaded a Lot of Boxes'
James' campaign aide Mervin Evans testified that he, another worker and the councilman's brother, Willie James, drove to the MCA warehouse in North Hollywood and picked up the albums. "Yeah, we loaded a lot of boxes that day," Evans said. "We filled up the back of a pickup truck. . . . "
Back at James' headquarters, Evans continued, many of the album jackets were stuffed with "a special piece of literature" bearing a photograph of Waters and former Rep. Yvonne Braithwaite-Burke, who also had endorsed James.
Waters testified that no one ever told her precisely how the records would be given to voters. "I just assumed that it would be given away in the normal way that specialty items are given away.
"Not in my wildest imagination, not only as an officeholder but as a past campaign manager, would I think that anyone would make a direct offer for a specialty item in exchange for anything. I mean, it just isn't done."
In her interview with The Times last week, Waters rose to defend James and Wright, adding that "I don't think it was done in this case either. And I don't think anybody thinks they can purchase a vote for $2."
The job of obtaining Jackson's endorsement of James also fell to Waters, she said. At some point, "I talked directly to Rev. Jackson" and garnered his support. Nowhere in the more than 200 pages of grand jury testimony does Beason or any witness challenge Waters on that point. But last spring, a Jackson spokesman told The Times that no such endorsement was ever given.
Missing From Session
Missing from the grand jury session was Bakewell, another of those present at the Hyatt hotel campaign strategy meeting. He is a widely known Compton and south Los Angeles businessman who, among other projects, was involved in a $15-million city-subsidized shopping center project across from Compton City Hall.
Bakewell's executive secretary told the grand jury that her employer had left the state only hours after district attorney's investigators telephoned his office with word that they sought to subpoena him for the next day's session.
Last week, Bakewell explained that he had been in San Bernardino when investigators called and had plans to fly to New York that night. Once he reached his destination, he said, he telephoned the investigators and volunteered to appear on another day. By the time he returned a few days later, however, the grand jury had already voted to indict James and Wright.
"I guess the bottom line was I really was not germane to what they were dealing with," Bakewell said.
In any event, Bakewell said, he recalls little about the Hyatt strategy meeting beyond some discussion about the "general spirit of how to get Floyd James elected."
Neither James nor Wright chose to testify before the grand jury, although prosecutors reportedly sent them so-called target letters in November disclosing that a criminal investigation was under way.
But both had previously given voluntary statements last June that were tape-recorded by district attorney's investigator William J. Kupper III, who recounted the details to the grand jury. Kupper also acknowledged that Wright had voluntarily turned over several campaign documents sought in the inquiry.
According to Kupper, Wright stated that he, James and Waters had talked about the album distribution "and how it was to be--how the coupons would be redeemed. And as I believe, they never really got down to the text of the letter itself," the investigator recalled.
Wright said James approved the mailer "in principal," the investigator said, but "never saw the mailer before it was sent out." Wright told Kupper that campaign officials were in a hurry to send out the album offer before Memorial Day, which fell between the primary and the general election.
Between 40 and 50 albums were eventually given to voters, "But he (Wright) also stated that a lot had been given away without the (pledge card) coupons to family members and people in the office." The rest of the albums are being held as evidence by the district attorney.
Wright acknowledged using the bulk permit of United Campaign Task Force--rather than the Committee to Re-Elect Floyd James--to send the last-minute mailer telling voters that Moore had been disqualified, Kupper said. Wright merely described the task force as a campaign organization duly registered in his name, the investigator said.
In the interview with James, Kupper said the candidate agreed that he had approved the album mailing only in principal and had not seen the actual document stating that voters could only receive the Jackson speech in exchange for their support.
Of the alleged smear letter, Kupper said: "I asked him (James) if he had checked out the allegation. . . . He said that he had spoken to the Compton city clerk, and the clerk related that she (Moore) had been disqualified."
Kupper said James added, however, "that he wished he (had) checked the story out further before he sent out the mailer . . . "