U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra’s mayoral campaign not only produced a scandalous telephone ad in the Los Angeles mayoral race but later erased the message after it had prompted an investigation, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Wednesday.
Although the actions did not constitute a crime, the district attorney’s report could spell political trouble for both Becerra and Los Angeles Councilman Nick Pacheco, a Becerra supporter connected to the telephone bank that issued the calls.
In the prerecorded telephone calls made days before the April 10 election, a woman posing as county Supervisor Gloria Molina attacked former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and his record on crime.
Although Becerra said he had no involvement in the calls, Molina said Wednesday that she felt “personally abused and personally hurt by Xavier Becerra and his campaign.”
Molina told reporters that the congressman could not hide behind his aides and that, even if he did not personally authorize them, had to accept responsibility for the calls.
Molina’s strong statements could hurt Becerra, who has benefited from her support and enjoyed a squeaky-clean image.
“There’s no way to see this in a positive light,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and a longtime friend of Becerra. “I can’t imagine him knowing. On the other hand, he is the candidate and he is ultimately responsible for the actions of his campaign.”
Late Wednesday, Becerra said he had offered an apology to Molina and Villaraigosa. In a two-page statement issued from his attorney’s office, the congressman said his campaign staff had long denied involvement in the calls.
Becerra said he had told his staff not to engage in negative campaigning. “I can’t express how disappointing and frustrating it is to now learn that those instructions and responsibilities may have been ignored in this case,” he said.
Pacheco, a rising force at City Hall, also found himself entangled in the scandal. The nonprofit organization that he co-founded, Cal Inc., leased its telephone bank to La Colectiva, which made the controversial calls. And one of his top aides was a pivotal figure in the inquiry.
The calls targeted rival mayoral candidate Villaraigosa just days before the April election, in which he finished first out of six major candidates. He is now in a runoff with City Atty. James K. Hahn; Becerra finished fifth with 6% of the vote.
In the calls, made to 80,000 voters, a woman identifying herself as “Gloria Marina” declared: “Please don’t hang up. This is an emergency call.” She then made allegations about Villaraigosa’s record on crime.
One day after the calls began, Molina asked Cooley to investigate them. Seven weeks later, the district attorney said that even though his office found no crime committed, it was important for the public to know what happened.
“Although those responsible for this reprehensible conduct will not face criminal prosecution, this office remains hopeful that the court of popular opinion will rule that this type of underhand political ‘dirty tricksterism’ will not be tolerated,” Cooley wrote in a letter to Molina.
A detailed report on the investigation combined with other information obtained by The Times shows that investigators first interviewed people at La Colectiva on April 2, two days after the calls were made.
“After . . . it became clear that investigators from this office were focusing on La Colectiva,” the report says, Floyd Monserratt, a top aide to Pacheco who was working as a volunteer for La Colectiva, became concerned and spoke with Becerra campaign manager Paige Richardson. At that point, the report adds, Richardson told Monserratt to change the recorded call. During the switch, the “Marina” recording was erased.
Over the course of the probe, investigators found themselves stymied by some of the Becerra campaign’s top officials, prosecutors said.
Monserratt initially denied any knowledge of the controversial calls.
Several days later, Cooley said, investigators tried to reach Monserratt but were unsuccessful until an attorney representing him contacted the district attorney’s office. But on May 1, under oath, Monserratt explained La Colectiva’s role in making the controversial calls.
Richardson also failed to cooperate with authorities’ efforts to get to the source of the phone calls, the report says. As early as April 5, a district attorney’s investigator spoke to Richardson at the campaign’s headquarters, where she denied any knowledge of the calls, according to Cooley’s office. Last weekend, Richardson refused to speak to an investigator who flew to her New Mexico home.
By then, prosecutors had interviewed two other members of the Becerra campaign who said Richardson had given them a script for the call. One, press deputy Allyson Laughlin, said she believed it was “inappropriate” to record the call because as press deputy “her voice was so recognizable,” the district attorney’s report says.
Richardson then asked Veronica Del Rico, a scheduling aide, to record the announcement, prosecutors said. Stephen Mansfield, an attorney for Del Rico, said his client was a low-level employee who was presented a script by her superiors. She asked whether the call would be ethical, legal and accurate before recording it, he said.
The prosecutors’ report also says Richardson and deputy campaign manager Scott Nunnery made the decision to have the caller identify herself as “Gloria Marina.”
“Ms. Richardson and Mr. Nunnery laughed at the idea, and Ms. Richardson said something like, ‘It would be a slap in her face since she just endorsed Villaraigosa,’ ” the report states.
Richardson’s attorney has denied that she originated the recorded call. Nunnery did not return calls for comment.
“The D.A.'s report is inaccurate in many respects,” Richardson’s attorney, Fred Woocher, said in a statement Wednesday. “At this point, however, she sees no value in pointing her finger elsewhere or in spreading the blame.”
On Tuesday, Becerra said in a statement that he had just learned the district attorney’s investigation was focusing on La Colectiva. On Wednesday, in a more detailed statement, he said he had heard “rumors” of the connection weeks ago and asked his campaign attorney to look into it.
Becerra said his attorney reported back that all staffers denied involvement.
Cooley took issue with the notion that the congressman only recently become aware of the focus on La Colectiva. Indeed, Cooley said that, although his office only recently contacted Becerra, there was no doubt the congressman’s campaign was under scrutiny.
“After all, we had been interviewing his campaign staffers for several weeks,” Cooley said. He also disputed Pacheco’s claim that the councilman was instrumental in finding out who was behind the calls.
“That is not an accurate representation,” Cooley told reporters. “He surfaced only because we contacted him last Friday.”
In a letter dated Tuesday to the district attorney, Pacheco said he encouraged Monserratt to share what he knew of the calls with prosecutors.
“That assertion would be inconsistent with our investigation and the statements of Mr. Monserratt,” Cooley said. Adding that Pacheco could have done more to let investigators know about the calls, the district attorney said: “One would think that Nick would have known his information would be helpful.”
Pacheco said he was “stunned” that Cooley told reporters he failed to quickly disclose his knowledge of the calls. “All I can tell you is I was hearing secondhand stories,” Pacheco said. “I’m stunned a prosecutor would want an investigation started with secondhand rumors.”
Times staff writers Tina Daunt and Matea Gold contributed to this story.