Digging for Dirt in the D.A.'s Race

Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti has imported a San Francisco political snooper to dig up dirt on his opponent.

The snoop’s name is Ace, Ace Smith, a perfect handle for a pioneer in the shady political game known as opposition research. When someone like Smith is through with you, your life has become an open book or, more likely, material for a damaging television commercial.

Smith, proprietor of a firm called the Research Group, was hired to research the many cases that Garcetti’s opponent, Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lynch, has prosecuted or supervised in 19 years in the district attorney’s office.

Gathering the material, a Garcetti campaign operative invoked the state open records law and filed what is known as a freedom of information request.


Since the district attorney’s office is split between Garcetti and Lynch backers, this kind of news travels fast. One of Lynch’s supporters tipped him off to the request, and Lynch told the press.


After the disclosure, Garcetti campaign strategist Bill Carrick readily admitted hiring Ace Smith and sounded enthusiastic about his new team member.

That’s understandable. Carrick needs ammunition to fight back when the blunt, unpolished challenger attacks the district attorney unrelentingly until the November election.

Lynch will have one big issue, the failure of the Garcetti team to win the O.J. Simpson case. As Lynch says every chance he gets, Garcetti “is the engineer of the train wreck.”

No one understands the importance of a big courtroom failure better than Ace Smith, whose father, former San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith, once won a district attorney’s race against an incumbent with a similar problem.

Arlo Smith unseated the incumbent San Francisco district attorney when the so-called “Twinkie defense” helped Mayor George Moscone’s assassin walk away with a light sentence. Then, in 1990, Smith took on heavily favored Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner for the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

With his son, Ace, doing the research, Arlo Smith ripped into Reiner for the prosecution’s failure to win the McMartin case. Reiner’s lead faded away, and he lost the election. Once again, charges of a big failure worked against an incumbent prosecutor. (Although it could only take Arlo Smith so far; he lost to Dan Lungren in the general election.)


But Garcetti is a tough and agile counterpuncher, dangerous when cornered. He showed that during a debate in the primary election.

One of his unsuccessful challengers, Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling “Ernie” Norris, was blasting him for the Simpson case and other losses.

“We all lose cases,” replied Garcetti. “Ernie just lost a case. Not because of Ernie. He did, I think, a good job, but the jury came back on a ‘not guilty’ in a murder case everyone expected to win.”

It will be Ace Smith’s job to analyze Lynch’s long record to provide weapons for his counterpunching candidate when the expected assault begins.


Garcetti campaign strategist Carrick said: “I just want to come up with something. If this is going to be one of these campaigns where someone throws up an ad with three cases, I have to have something to neutralize it. This guy has never said anything the least bit positive, and if he raises the money he says he is going to raise, I expect he will be very negative.”

It will not be easy. During every district attorney election campaign, reporters do somewhat the same kind of work. They try to make sense out of a career by studying the records. Having done it myself, I usually find it frustrating and inconclusive.

But Ace Smith won’t be looking for a pattern, as journalists often do. Rather, he’ll be looking for a powerful hit. Maybe someone who survived a Lynch prosecution and then committed more crimes, a variation of the notorious case of Willie Horton, the Massachusetts convict who committed rape after his early release from prison.



Ace Smith’s job, however, is more complicated than the usual political sleuthing.

For Garcetti has been Lynch’s boss for several years, both as district attorney and as a top executive in the office. Thus he’s been supervising the target of his own investigation.

The buck stops on the boss’ desk. If Ace Smith isn’t careful, the mud he slings may also dirty the man who hired him.