Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Susan Brooks has drawn sharp criticism from her rivals in both major political parties after she questioned Hughes Aircraft Co.'s fund raising for Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey).
Brooks, seeking the 36th Congressional District Republican nomination to challenge Harman in November, charged that Hughes executives pressured their employees into contributing to the congresswoman's reelection campaign at a reception held Oct. 29 at the company's Westchester headquarters. Harman's district stretches from Venice to San Pedro.
Brooks' opponents call the charges groundless, and they characterize her as an overzealous campaigner who makes charges without doing her homework first.
At the heart of Brooks' claim is a letter that the Hughes Active Citizenship Committee sent to Hughes executives on company letterhead. The letter, distributed before the reception, suggested contribution amounts, depending on the executives' positions in the company.
Harman is "a friend to our industry, and we can certainly help her get reelected," the letter stated. Hughes Chairman C. Michael Armstrong also sent a letter, but it did not solicit financial support.
"The order was basically, 'Give, or walk the planks,' " Brooks said at a news conference last week. "The implications are there."
But the letter also states that contributions are voluntary. Of the 240 letters sent to employees, only about half attended the fund-raiser, said Hughes spokesman Ray Silvius.
"There was no strong-arming," he said. "We took all precautions and sought the advice of outside legal counsel."
Federal Election Commission officials, who oversee congressional races, said they could not comment on Brooks' specific charges. But they pointed to an election rule that allows companies to distribute partisan letters to top-level employees and shareholders.
At her news conference, Brooks also questioned whether Hughes was reimbursed by Harman's campaign for the cost of holding the fund-raiser. Such reimbursement is required by federal election guidelines.
In fact, Harman's campaign paid the company $857.46, including $731 for staff labor, $16 for company stationery, $10 for badges, $50 for rental of company facilities and $50 for other administrative costs, according to finance reports and a canceled check to Hughes dated Feb. 9. The campaign also paid $950 to the Canteen Corp., which catered the reception. About $20,000 to $25,000 was raised at the event.
"The charges are outright false," said Steve Gray-Barkan, a spokesman for Harman's campaign. "Once again, there is egg on (Brooks') face."
Last month, Brooks distributed a letter accusing her Republican opponent, former Palos Verdes Estates Councilman Ron Florance, of having "a tainted business background." Brooks pointed to more than 40 lawsuits that have named Florance or one of his companies in the past nine years.
But Florance accused Brooks of distorting the truth and threatened legal action. Florance said that only one of the lawsuits went to trial and that he prevailed. Many of the lawsuits, he said, were "frivolous claims."
His campaign joined in criticizing Brooks for her recent attack on Harman. The charges against Harman are "just another example of Susan shooting from the hip, throwing out unsubstantiated, reckless charges without first checking all of her facts," said John Carlson, a consultant on the Florance campaign.
Still, Brooks' campaign staff plans to file a complaint by early next week with the FEC about the Harman fund-raiser. "We don't care whether the violation was small or large," said Brooks' husband, Jim, who is a campaign adviser. "Hughes, under pressure to stay on Jane Harman's good side, has gone overboard."
Harman has lined up the support of many top aerospace executives, including those at Hughes, Northrop Grumman Corp. in Century City, and TRW Space and Electronics Group in Redondo Beach.