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$71,500 Settlement of Dirty Tricks Claim Revealed : Politics: Payment arising from 1991 theft of campaign signs for L.A. Councilman Hal Bernson’s rivals was sealed by court but becomes public in report to ethics panel.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cheap political tricks have gotten more expensive, it seems.

In what is believed to be the largest settlement of its kind, a Northridge businessman, without admitting any wrongdoing, agreed to pay $71,500 to settle a lawsuit that accused him of sabotaging the campaigns of two rivals of Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, according to documents on file with the city Ethics Commission.

Details of the settlement, reached last year, were sealed by court order. But one of the plaintiffs--Walter Prince, whose signs were stolen during his unsuccessful campaign for Bernson’s seat in 1991--filed information on the case with the Ethics Commission. News of the settlement came to light recently as Prince started using his share of the money to mail refunds to those who contributed to his ill-fated campaign.

Prince and Allen Hecht, another unsuccessful candidate in the 1991 race, alleged in their lawsuit that tire store owner Alan Fox stole hundreds of campaign signs in an attempt to derail their campaigns against Bernson, a friend of Fox. The thefts violated their civil rights, the suit charged.

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On Wednesday, the hefty settlement was a hot topic in the local political world, where sign vandalism has long been viewed as a popular outdoor sport.

“It’s as all-American as apple pie,” said corporate political consultant Paul Clarke, cheerfully recalling sign-vandalizing capers of his youth.

“Who hasn’t heard of the environmental or neighborhood cleanup committee being formed to remove an opponent’s signs?” said Clarke, a former campaign adviser. Clarke said he hoped the Fox case did not set a precedent. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “I have nothing but contempt for those who get in the ring, get hit and then whine. It’s real wimpism.” Others said they expected the settlement would be beneficial.

Republican consultant Natalie Blanning said she would add the Fox case to her speech warning youthful campaign volunteers in particular to leave opponents’ signs alone. “I always tell them about the guy who paid $2,500 in fines and spent a night in jail when he was caught,” she said. “But $71,500 is really a lot of money.”

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Consultant Harvey Englander, who ran Bernson’s 1991 campaign, said he hoped the case sets an example. “Hopefully it’ll put an end to these shenanigans,” said Englander, who added that he has never been in a campaign in 26 years in which there weren’t allegations of campaign sign stealing.

In one prominent example, Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky--as he ran for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors--was photographed earlier this year only moments after he had ripped down a road sign advertising the candidacy of his main opponent, Don Wallace.

Prince, who filed the settlement documents with the Ethics Commission as part of a campaign finance disclosure document, said Wednesday that he hoped the resolution of his case would act as a deterrent. “We got cheated out of a decent election because of this.”

Fox, contacted at his Sepulveda-based firm Ram Tire, was surprised to learn that terms of the settlement were now in the public record and refused to comment. In the settlement, Fox denied any culpability.

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Prince, owner of a janitorial service, and Hecht, a computer consultant, were part of an insurgent movement that tried to oust Bernson from office in 1991, a year when the incumbent--battered by controversy surrounding his use of campaign funds and his support for the huge Porter Ranch construction project--was believed to be highly vulnerable.

Bernson narrowly won reelection.

But before the 1991 primary, a Northridge couple saw two men removing a Prince sign from a grocery store parking lot. The couple, thinking there was something amiss, noted the license plate of the truck being driven by the men. The truck was subsequently found to be registered to Fox’s tire company and the couple also later identified Fox as one of the men in the truck, according to deposition testimony and authorities who investigated the incident.

Bernson has denied that he ordered anyone to tear down signs in the 1991 campaign. He was not a defendant in the lawsuit, and could not be reached for comment.

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Prince has begun mailing refund checks to about 75 people who contributed money to his 1991 campaign, using the settlement proceeds to pay them.

After the lawyers and the other parties took their shares, Prince’s political committee netted about $11,000. Prince said he was refunding the money because he felt his supporters had been the real victims of the sign-stealing escapade.


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