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D.A. Traces Bogus Calls to Firm Tied to Becerra

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has concluded that a phone bank run for the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra sent out the incendiary calls last month attacking rival Antonio Villaraigosa, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Although details of the probe were carefully guarded Tuesday, interviews show that investigators uncovered evidence that Becerra’s campaign manager knew of the calls and that the voice on the recording is a female aide to the congressman. Martin GutieRuiz, director of the La Colectiva agency, which issued the calls, told The Times they were ordered--and paid for--by the Becerra campaign.

But Fred Woocher, the lawyer for Becerra’s former campaign manager, called GutieRuiz’s statement “absolutely false.” Said Woocher: “We don’t know who made the calls. We have our suspicions, but we don’t have any first-hand knowledge.”

In a statement released Tuesday night, Becerra denied involvement. He said he “never authorized or requested those telephone calls, I did not know they were being made, and I condemn those who employ such tactics.”

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At a news conference today, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley is expected to announce that prosecutors found that no crime was committed in the prerecorded calls, in which a woman posing as county Supervisor Gloria Molina alleged that former Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa opposed legislation increasing penalties for rapists and child molesters.

“Please, on April 10, say no to Antonio Villaraigosa,” the message concluded. “The safety of women and children in our community depends on it.”

Even though the calls did not constitute a crime, their political fallout could be profound. If Becerra or his aides are linked to the widely decried ads, they will incur the wrath of two powerful Democrats: Villaraigosa--the intended target--and Molina, who was outraged by the misuse of her name and who is a formidable political foe.

As Cooley’s new Public Integrity Unit followed the trail of the calls, prosecutors allegedly uncovered a tangled series of relationships behind the anonymous telephone attack, which came days before voters selected Villaraigosa and City Atty. James K. Hahn to face each other in a June runoff.

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Becerra finished well short of qualifying for next month’s election, but as he campaigned he made significant use of La Colectiva and its phone-bank operation.

Campaign records show that Becerra reported a $25,000 payment for phone bank services to the Eastside group in February. His campaign is not required until July to file statements for expenditures during its final days. There is a dispute between La Colectiva and the Becerra campaign about whether the operation is owed additional money.

La Colectiva, which ran telephone banks for several local races in the April primary, leases its phone equipment from a nonprofit group set up by Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco. One of Pacheco’s aides, Lloyd Monserratt, was the La Colectiva worker who actually took the order from Becerra’s campaign and sent out the prerecorded call, said GutieRuiz.

GutieRuiz said he had no knowledge of the calls’ contents and that Monserratt simply punched a button to send out what was only one of about 50 calls made for the Becerra campaign. “I had no second thoughts about the message coming from his camp,” GutieRuiz said.

Monserratt’s attorney, Mark Geragos, said his client first learned of the controversial calls from Becerra’s campaign manager, Paige Richardson. According to Geragos, Richardson asked his client whether he had heard “our latest one.” Until then, the lawyer said, Monserratt had not heard the calls. Geragos said Monserratt reported the calls to the district attorney’s office after the April 10 primary.

Richardson declined comment Tuesday. Her lawyer, Woocher, said that La Colectiva did place phone calls for the Becerra campaign but that the only ones authorized were those prepared and taped by the campaign. “And this call was not one of them,” Woocher said.

He said that neither Richardson nor Becerra had any knowledge of the bogus Molina calls.

Geragos also said his client does not believe that Becerra knew of the calls.

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Pacheco denied any connection to the calls, saying Monserratt was on leave from the councilman’s office when he worked as a volunteer at La Colectiva.

Pacheco, who endorsed Becerra, added that he believes the people responsible were not the congressman but aides to his campaign who do not reside in Los Angeles. “It’s unfortunate that these out-of-towners misused local people,” he said.

The tensions between Villaraigosa and Becerra--and their staffs--run deep. Although the two men were once friends, community leaders had feared that their competing candidacies would divide Latino support and that neither would make it to the June runoff.

But neither pulled out. In the end, Molina endorsed Villaraigosa, and the former Assembly speaker won the most votes in the election. The Becerra campaign never gained traction, and in the weeks leading up to election day complained that Villaraigosa campaign aides were calling some Latino voters and smearing their candidate.

Then, less than two weeks before the primary, what are estimated to be thousands of registered Democratic female voters received a pre-recorded call from a woman calling herself “Gloria Morina.”

“Please don’t hang up,” the woman said after identifying herself. “This is an emergency call.”

She went on to challenge Villaraigosa’s record on crime, particularly in areas that might trigger a reaction from women. Molina, whose offices received angry calls from voters who believed the supervisor was smearing Villaraigosa, requested that Dist. Atty. Cooley investigate the calls.

A spokesman for Molina said Tuesday night that the supervisor would not comment until she received a copy of the district attorney’s report this morning. A spokesman for Cooley also declined comment.

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Times staff writers Tina Daunt and Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this story.


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