For the past few months, a private detective has been digging into the personal affairs of Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), an increasingly common practice in the world of political campaigns.
Although such political tactics usually remain behind the scenes, the investigation of Gallegly provides a rare glimpse into how campaigns attempt to dredge up embarrassing incidents to hurl at their opponents.
The detective, hired by a pollster working for Gallegly's opponent, said he was asked several months ago to check out some "embarrassing details" of a boating accident last September in Channel Islands Harbor and to look into other rumors.
So far, the investigation has failed to turn up evidence substantial enough to be raised as an issue by Republican challenger Sang Korman before the June 5 primary, said Korman's campaign manager, A. Robert Lavoie.
Gallegly said he is concerned that the opposition might have twisted the truth about an innocent boating accident, but he added that he sees nothing wrong with Korman's campaign snooping into his private life. Indeed, Gallegly's campaign has done background checks on Korman and on other opponents.
"If it is legitimate, and you did something wrong, that's fine," Gallegly said. "You should be able to stand up and face the music. But if someone tries to twist something, or have someone out and out lie, that's wrong."
Known in political circles as "opposition research," the practice usually consists of scrutinizing voting records, campaign financial documents and other official statements. But more and more, campaigns poke into the private lives of opponents looking for scandal, sometimes with professional help.
"It's a seasonal thing," said Nicholas Beltrante, who runs an investigation firm in Washington. "As we get closer to the election, we get as many as a dozen cases going on at one time."
The trend not only reflects a shift in attitudes about what is fair game in the political arena, it is also a measure of the political difficulty of unseating an incumbent.
"When you are a challenger, you hope for every opportunity that comes along," Lavoie said. "Face it, the only people who have been removed from office were removed because of malfeasance or a scandal of some sort."
Indeed, 98% of incumbents won reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988. It takes a great deal for an outsider to overcome the incumbent's advantage of name identification and ability to raise political contributions and send out taxpayer-financed mass mailings to constituents.
In his two terms in Congress, Gallegly has used these advantages to seize hold of his safely Republican district. He easily trounced Korman in the GOP primary two years ago, as well as a Democrat in the general election. Political analysts expect a repeat performance, barring any unforeseen campaign bombshell.
Lavoie said the Korman campaign has not had to search for material billed as explosive. "During the course of a week, we receive a number of calls giving us supposed inside information," he said. "Most of them are a little strange, and we dismiss them."
But a rumor about the boating accident kept resurfacing, Lavoie said. "The nature of the boating accident had to do with the congressman having left the scene . . . and left people in a precarious position," he said. Other related rumors, he said, "had to do with what kind of condition the congressman was in."
Initially, Lavoie asked Robert Danford, an investigator in Los Angeles, to look into the incident and conduct other opposition research. Danford refused the job and told Gallegly's campaign about the offer.
Danford refused to comment on the matter. But Ben Key, a consultant for Gallegly's campaign, said he talked extensively with Danford about what Korman's campaign wanted him to do. "Danford said he was turned off by the way that Korman's people wanted him to get information," Key said.
Key said Korman's campaign wanted Danford to check out other rumors about Gallegly and to conduct 24-hour surveillance of Gallegly in Washington.
Lavoie acknowledged that he asked Danford to investigate the boating accident.
When Danford turned him down, Lavoie said, campaign staff asked Gary Lawrence, an Orange County pollster, to inquire about the incident. "We asked Gary to look into it, check out any reports that were available, conduct any interviews," he said.
Lawrence turned the matter over to Harry F. Block, a Newport Beach private detective, Block said. Through his investigation, Block tracked down the main witnesses to the Sept. 4 boating accident at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard.
Block said he found one witness who was willing to accuse Gallegly of being drunk and leaving the scene of the accident, if he was paid $3,000. The detective repeatedly contacted The Times in an attempt to persuade the newspaper to publish a story about the incident.
The witness' allegations, Gallegly said, are "totally untrue." The congressman said the claims are particularly infuriating because he was acting as a good Samaritan when the accident occurred.
Gallegly was returning from Catalina in his 33-foot boat on Labor Day when the occupants of a disabled 18-foot speedboat asked him for a tow back to Channel Islands Harbor, he said.
The congressman said he had managed to maneuver the smaller boat into the harbor and to a launch ramp without incident. But at the last minute, the wind blew his larger boat into the smaller one, puncturing it with a sizable hole. The wind continued to push his boat onto the rocks, knocking out one of its two engines, he said.
Once free of the rocks, Gallegly said, he had to leave to avoid further damage. He said he motored across the harbor to his boat slip and then reported the accident immediately. He said he left the speedboat safely in shallow water at the launch ramp. Gallegly's insurance paid $4,900 to cover damage to the speedboat.
The Harbor Patrol and other witnesses, in reports and interviews, backed up the congressman's version of events.
"To me, I saw no probable cause to suspect that he was under the influence," said Harbor Patrol Sgt. Don Molony, who handled Gallegly's accident. "Basically, it was windy, and it was explained to me that they needed to dock the boat. And he, on his own volition, was reporting the incident to the Coast Guard. So I assumed it wasn't a hit-and-run."
Gallegly said he believes it is appropriate for political opponents to scour the public record for ammunition to use against each other. But he draws the line, he said, "at having someone hiding in the bushes--that kind of approach."
Korman said he believes background checks are a legitimate campaign tool. "That kind of research is reasonable," he said.
Although he said he never intended to hire a private investigator, he acknowledged that he asked his campaign staff to check out the rumors about the boating accident involving Gallegly. He said he told his staff, "maybe we can hire someone to find out what kind of person he is, what kind of friends he has, what kind of political background he has."
Two years ago, the Gallegly campaign did a background check on Korman when the Korean-American first challenged the incumbent in the 1988 Republican primary, Key said. "We wanted to check out who is Sang Korman," he said. "What we found was of no consequence."
Other than routine checks of public records, the Gallegly campaign has not mounted another investigation of Korman, said John Frith, Gallegly's spokesman.
The probe into Korman's affairs was not the first by a Gallegly campaign. In 1986, his campaign hired a researcher to check out Tony Hope, son of entertainer Bob Hope, Key said.
Throughout that campaign, Hope was considered the front-runner in the race for the vacant seat left by former Republican Rep. Bobbi Fiedler. But Gallegly won an upset victory after labeling Hope a "carpetbagger" who was not living within the boundaries of the congressional district and after pointing out that Hope had not voted in several elections.
The practice of attempting to dredge up embarrassing details about a candidate's private life is widespread.
A political operative who once worked for Gallegly was caught plying his trade in Texas earlier this year. Former Gallegly aide Gary Maloney became the center of a controversy over his research into a Texas GOP gubernatorial candidate in January.
According to the candidate's complaint, Maloney asked the ex-wife of one of the candidate's employees "several inappropriate questions," including whether the candidate drinks or uses foul language and how he treats his employees and conducts his personal and business affairs.
Shortly after the complaint hit the newspapers, Maloney was promoted to director of strategy of the National Republican Congressional Committee. His committee helps finance House campaigns across the country.
Gary Koops, a spokesman for the Republican committee, said there is no committee policy forbidding research into private affairs or banning the employment of private investigators. But he said the committee believes that "suitable issues" can be found in the public record.
His Democratic counterpart takes a firmer position.
"There is a difference between hiring someone to do research and hiring a private detective to snoop around in people's lives," said Howard Schloss, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It is an extreme that doesn't have a place in the election process."
Schloss said he wouldn't be surprised if some Democratic candidates have hired investigators, but he is not aware of any examples. "We don't condone it," he said.
Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater and co-Chairman Ed Rollins like to talk about their $1-million research center in the basement of Republican headquarters. But Republican staff members say they don't hire investigators to probe into private affairs.
"We are not an investigative agency," said Leslie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. "We deal with items that are in the public record and in the public domain."
Private detectives nationwide suggest that campaign officials underestimate how frequently they hire investigators. The leader of one private investigator association takes a philosophical view about investigating private lives of candidates.
"The public has a right to know about the honesty and integrity and, to a certain extent, the personal habits of the public servants," said Ralph Thomas, president of the National Assn. of Investigative Specialists in Austin, Tex.
His 1,000 members are frequently summoned by campaigns to do the digging for them, he said. "It is very common these days. But it is not a big percentage of our work."