The congressional bad-check stain spread to nearly half of California's 45 U.S. House members Friday, with one San Diego Republican accounting for $129,000 in bad checks and Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) saying the episode had mushroomed into "a nightmare" for her U.S. Senate campaign.
At least 20 House members from California acknowledged they wrote a total of 584 bad checks totaling more than $170,000 over a three-year period on the House's now-shuttered bank. Others expressed confidence they were not culprits, but were hurriedly combing their financial records to make sure.
Only eight of the 20 volunteered an estimate of how much their bad checks totaled. Boxer, who had announced Thursday that she had written 87 bad checks, said she is working on an accounting, but insisted that any bad checks were cleared up by each month's payday. "That's the relevant issue here," she said in an interview.
Eleven of the delegation's 26 Democrats and nine of the 19 Republicans volunteered the information that they had overdrawn their accounts at the House-operated bank at one time or another.
A second Senate candidate, Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), who is challenging Republican Sen. John Seymour in the June GOP primary, has acknowledged 27 overdrafts totaling $6,553. Dannemeyer, campaigning Friday in Imperial County, insisted that his overdrafts were the result of "an honest mistake" and said they should have no impact on his Senate prospects.
He added that his wife had written most of the checks but that that did not diminish his responsibility.
On Thursday, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado) had estimated that he wrote 160 bad checks. A recalculation on Friday raised the count to 407 overdrafts totaling $129,225. The largest overdraft, for $23,012, was written in May of 1991 to Valley Drilling for a well on property Hunter owns.
As with many of the California members, Hunter apparently escaped facing a major challenge in his reelection campaign when the filing deadline to run for office passed last Friday. But the check scandal could suddenly plunge some seemingly invulnerable incumbents into battles for their political survival.
Hunter was relieved to find Friday that he was not on the list of the 24 worst offenders.
He defended himself on broadcast talk shows and in interviews: "I'm going to be straightforward and make it clear that none of these checks bounced, that everybody got paid. Then I'll address the appearance of impropriety."
The list of those who made overdrafts included some of California's most prominent members of Congress, including Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), who had intended to run for the Senate but withdrew from the race last year because of the illness of his father. Matsui listed 21 checks for $11,196, ranking him second after Hunter at this point.
Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, announced earlier he had five overdrafts with no amount listed. Brown is in a tough reelection campaign in a new district.
Chairman George Miller (D-Martinez) of the House Interior Committee was not specific, but said he assumed he had bounced some checks.
Also on the list was Rep. Pete Stark (D-Oakland), for 17 checks with no amount listed. Stark is a former bank owner.
Several congressmen sought to make a distinction between "bouncing" checks and merely being overdrawn. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), whose district includes part of the Antelope Valley, said: "Have I bounced checks? No. Have I written checks which triggered the overdraft protection under the so-called bank? . . . The answer is yes."
Thomas and others also emphasized that there was no loss to the taxpayers since any temporary check shortages were covered by deposits of other members of Congress.
Such explanations may be fine for congressional and political insiders, veteran political consultant Clint Reilly of San Francisco said, but won't fly very far with voters.
"Those lengthy explanations are only going to make it seem as if you're trying to make excuses," Reilly said.
But Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said the one bounced check he had, which he disclosed last fall, was accidental. A check was re-issued and then both the original and duplicate were cashed by mistake, he said.
Dornan said Friday that the money was used for a statue of the Virgin Mary and construction of a wishing well in his back yard that he was building for his wife, Sallie, for their 36th wedding anniversary.
Even so, Dornan can expect the matter to be an issue in his Republican primary contest with former Superior Court Judge Judy Ryan, Ryan's consultant Eileen Padberg said.
Padberg said voters do not believe members of Congress are very ethical or moral and "all of this makes it very tough for Bob Dornan to seek reelection."
Dornan, the conservative who is known for his elaborate tongue-lashings of Democratic libeals, retorted, "Eileen Padberg is an unadulterated sleazeball."
Boxer, a five-term veteran from Marin County, already was in the grip of a tough fight with Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) and Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy of San Francisco for the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat being relinquished by Alan Cranston.
Political consultant Reilly observed, "This is a negative TV commercial waiting to happen. The individual checks will be floating up there on the screen."
Reilly, whose past clients have included Boxer, said members of Congress who had written only "a moderate" number of bad checks might be able to survive the scandal with "candor, openness, getting the facts out on the table, an apology."
But for someone who was responsible for "a lot" of bad checks, Reilly said without directly identifying Boxer: "I don't know that there's a political consultant anywhere that can perform an operation and put them back on the field next season. This may well be a career-ending injury."
Levine already has declared he had not overdrawn his account, noting that he didn't use the House bank. McCarthy issued a statement saying, "Too many members of Congress have indulged themselves with special perks and privileges."
A Democratic consultant who declined to be identified said that writing bad checks was a "big, big problem" for any member of Congress, but that "the magnitude for Barbara is so incredible. Even worse is how she handled it."
Boxer originally had opposed the release of the names of House members on the overdrawn list and insisted that her bank records were a matter of privacy.
The problem for Boxer is that she has not yet been able to define herself to a broad spectrum of voters outside her San Francisco-area district. Now, the scandal threatens to define her as "Barbara Bouncer," the consultant said.
Boxer returned to her California home from Washington on Friday and attempted to deal with the crisis by fielding newspaper, radio and television interviews.
"This is the biggest embarrassment of my life," she said. "It's such a nightmare. It (the bank) started as convenience and turned into an embarrassment and then a nightmare."
Boxer said the check issue is a "definite negative" in her Senate campaign, in which she has surprised many observers by boosting her standing in the opinion polls and by outdistancing her two male opponents in fund raising during the last six months of 1991.
"If somebody wants to get negative," she said, "if that appears on a TV ad, well that somebody else can have warts, too."
Stall reported from Los Angeles, Bunting from Washington. Also contributing were Times staff writers Dave Lesher in Orange County, Leonard Bernstein in San Diego and Jim Bornemeier, Alan C. Miller and Robert Stewart in Washington.