Gov. George Deukmejian accused Democratic Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp Wednesday of unfairly targeting Republican Assemblyman John Lewis for prosecution over his role in an alleged phony endorsement scheme while ignoring similar transgressions by Democrats.
The Republican governor refused to ascribe a motive to what he called Van de Kamp’s “selective” enforcement. But Deukmejian told reporters he sees validity to the complaints of Republican lawmakers who maintain that Van de Kamp, in hopes of advancing his gubernatorial aspirations, chose to investigate Lewis but overlooked fraudulent endorsement letters sent by Democratic lawmakers.
“On the face of it, it would appear as though there have been violations similar to those alleged in the Lewis case,” Deukmejian said. “So if the attorney general is going to pursue the Lewis matter it would seem he would want to pursue investigations on these other cases as well.”
The governor’s remarks came in answer to reporters’ questions after a speech to a real estate dealers’ conference.
Van de Kamp declined through an aide to comment on the governor’s allegation. Duane Peterson, Van de Kamp’s press secretary, sought to portray the dispute as a misunderstanding, saying the Lewis case was handled no differently from any other.
“I’m sure that once (Deukmejian) understands the facts, it will all be cleared up,” Peterson said.
Until Wednesday, Deukmejian, himself a former attorney general, seemed reluctant to openly criticize Van de Kamp.
Deukmejian also has tried to keep his distance from the problems plaguing Lewis (R-Orange), who was indicted last month on one felony count for his role in mailing thousands of 1986 campaign letters bearing the phony signature of then-President Ronald Reagan. The indictment was the culmination of a 15-month investigation by Van de Kamp after Sacramento County Dist. Atty. John Dougherty declined to prosecute because of the “political nature” of the case and his office’s lack of financial resources.
When the indictment was announced, Assembly Republican Leader Ross Johnson of La Habra labeled the Lewis investigation a “political witch hunt” and charged: “Van de Kamp is running for governor and needs a scalp on his belt to portray himself as a so-called defender of election ethics.”
Since then, Johnson and other Republicans have been circulating documents alleging that phony endorsement letters also were mailed on behalf of several Democrats.
The Democratic letter they cite most often was one sent last year by Assembly candidate Willard H. Murray of Paramount, as part of his successful campaign to unseat Republican Paul Zeltner of Bellflower. It was similar in tone to the phony Reagan letter but carried Van de Kamp’s signature.
Van de Kamp acknowledged at the time that he was not aware of the contents, but declined to take action because he had endorsed Murray. Other letters allegedly sent by the Murray campaign carried the signatures of Democratic U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston and U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) Spokesman for both lawmakers said the letters were sent without their approval.
While Deukmejian did not specifically cite these cases, he said he agrees with Johnson that incidents linked to Democrats “should be investigated” by Van de Kamp.
“I’m not going to ascribe any kind of motive,” Deukmejian said. “I’m just saying it would appear these other cases are very similar to the one that is involved with Assemblyman Lewis.”
According to Van de Kamp spokesman Peterson, in each case allegations were forwarded to local district attorneys for investigation. In the Lewis case, Peterson said, the same procedure was followed and Van de Kamp decided to move ahead only because the local prosecutor said he did not have the money to do so.
Peterson also noted that a similar allegation involving losing Democratic Assembly candidate Joe Baca resulted in the conviction of a Baca aide who forged the name of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to mailers sent out during the 1988 primary. Peterson said the allegations were refered to the local prosecutor by Van de Kamp.
“The governor is correct that each incident should be handled in the same manner and, indeed, they have been,” Peterson said.