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Becerra Knew of Hit Calls Long Ago, Two Say

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two political associates of Rep. Xavier Becerra said Thursday that they warned the congressman weeks ago that his campaign was apparently responsible for an anonymous hit phone call campaign against one of his mayoral opponents.

The revelations raise questions as to why Becerra waited until last week to tell the district attorney’s office he had heard “rumors” that the calls may have been linked to his campaign.

In the calls, a woman impersonating county Supervisor Gloria Molina said that former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa’s record on crime made him a bad choice for women and children. On Wednesday, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said a seven-week investigation showed that the calls were generated by Becerra’s campaign. Although no crime was committed, Cooley denounced the tactic as “dirty tricksterism.”

The controversy has tarnished the clean-cut image of a prominent local politician who prides himself on his ethical conduct, and it has damaged his relationships with powerful Latino leaders. Although Becerra blamed his staff for the calls, he has apologized to the city as well as to Molina and Villaraigosa. But both officials--two of the most prominent Latino politicians in California--expressed hurt and disappointment that Becerra’s campaign was behind the attack.

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The congressman from Los Angeles acknowledged in an interview Thursday that Martin GutieRuiz, who runs a field operation called La Colectiva, shared his suspicions with him, but said he did not recall the exact date of their conversation.

Becerra said he did everything he could to determine his campaign’s role in the attack phone call, adding that he feels “betrayed” by his campaign staff. This week he denounced the people responsible for the calls.

Cooley on Thursday voiced disappointment that Becerra did not share what he knew with prosecutors earlier in their probe.

‘Being Responsible Means Asking Tough Questions’

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“The responsibility was to come forward right away, not weeks later to report that he heard ‘rumors,’ ” Cooley said. “Being responsible means asking the tough questions and getting the straight answers, not just buying the first nice answer you get and averting your eyes.”

GutieRuiz said he told the congressman April 9, the day before the election, that he believed Becerra’s campaign manager, Paige Richardson, had launched the message that went out to about 80,000 homes. About 12,000 of the calls were actually received. The campaign had contracted to use La Colectiva’s phone bank for three months.

GutieRuiz’s account to The Times, verified by an employee who overheard the exchange, is the first report that Becerra had an indication before election day that his campaign might be responsible for the smear. And although it confirms Becerra’s account that he never authorized or approved of the tactic, the statement from GutieRuiz--a longtime Becerra supporter--reveals that the congressman had information about the call that he did not share with the district attorney’s office for weeks, even as investigators were checking into the matter.

Meantime, Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco said he told Becerra in mid-April that another La Colectiva worker was going to tell investigators that Becerra’s campaign was responsible for the calls.

On Thursday, Becerra said he did not call investigators earlier to tell them the suspicions he had heard because “I assumed the D.A.'s office had been talking to all those folks.” He said he cooperated fully with the investigation and “answered whatever questions they asked.”

He said he was convinced that GutieRuiz was wrong after he confronted Richardson and she “emphatically” denied it.

“When you’re clear on your instructions, you don’t expect people who work for you to disobey those instructions,” he said. “You don’t expect people who work for you to lie to you.”

After his staff told him, and then his attorney, that they did not participate in the call, the congressman appears to have done little to pass on suspicions to investigators.

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Becerra waited until May 18 to inform the district attorney’s office that he knew of “a rumor” that the phone bank he used may have put out the call. In a letter faxed to investigators, his attorney Craig A. Steele emphasized that the congressman had no “firsthand knowledge” of the call.

And in a statement released Wednesday, Becerra said he became aware of a rumor “a few weeks ago” that a phone banking operation his campaign used might have been responsible.

On Wednesday, Cooley said his investigators determined that Richardson and other Becerra staffers were responsible for the attack phone call, then erased it when the investigation began.

After initially denying any knowledge of the call, Richardson refused to speak with investigators. After Cooley’s report pegged her as responsible, Richardson released a statement through her attorney calling the report “inaccurate in many respects.”

“What do you do when your trust has been violated?” Becerra asked Thursday. “It’s embarrassing. How do you handle that? . . . It’s important to make it clear that I apologize to the people of Los Angeles. That’s not me. But it was my campaign. I was the candidate.”

Becerra said he has asked his attorney to look into whether any legal action against his former campaign staff is appropriate.

Molina, a powerful local official who was once an ally of Becerra, and Villaraigosa, who stands to become one of the most prominent Latino officials in the country if elected June 5, both said they felt personally hurt by the congressman.

“I said to him that I was deeply hurt and upset, but that I accepted his apology,” Villaraigosa said Thursday morning.

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GutieRuiz said he didn’t know that Richardson had used the phone bank to launch the message on March 31 until Lloyd Monserratt, a La Colectiva volunteer, told him in early April that he thought Richardson had initiated the call.

On the afternoon of April 9, GutieRuiz said, he pulled aside Becerra in La Colectiva’s Boyle Heights office.

“I told him, Xavier, I have troubling news,” GutieRuiz recounted. “That phone message that everyone is talking about, I have a suspicion that it came out of our system, generated by your campaign.”

Becerra looked “disappointed” and seemed “genuinely surprised,” he added. “He said, ‘Well, let me get back to the campaign and let me look into it,’ ” GutieRuiz recalled.

Oscar Campillo, who was a field organizer for the Becerra campaign and La Colectiva, said he overheard GutieRuiz telling Becerra about his suspicions and said the congressman looked crestfallen.

“He was shocked, I think, because Xavier has always prided himself on not doing negative ads, and in this campaign he didn’t have a lot of control over what was going on,” Campillo said when asked about Becerra’s knowledge of the call.

GutieRuiz said that about a week after the election, he tried to talk to Becerra about Richardson’s role in the call, but that the congressman told him “the lawyers are involved and we probably shouldn’t comment on it.”

GutieRuiz described a candidate who desperately did not want to believe his campaign was responsible.

“I think Xavier has been so squarely clean for so long that he couldn’t believe it could happen,” he said. “I think in his heart, he wanted to believe that Paige was telling the truth.”

Pacheco said that in mid-April he urged Monserratt, who had taken a leave from his staff to work with La Colectiva, to take his information to the district attorney. After that he called Becerra to tell him it appeared his campaign was responsible for the calls, he said.

‘I Can’t Believe This Is True’

“I felt that was the time to tell Xavier that the information I had pointed to his campaign,” Pacheco said Thursday. “His initial reaction [was] ‘I can’t believe this is true. There is no way my campaign would do something like this,’ ” recalled Pacheco.

Becerra attorney Steele confirmed that the congressman and Pacheco had a conversation but was unsure of the date. He added that Becerra still didn’t have firsthand information to provide investigators.

District attorney’s records show that Becerra’s campaign--like the others involved in the mayor’s race--was asked in writing on April 25 to come forward if it had any details about the controversial calls.

“If you, your candidate, or anyone else connected with your staff have any information about the person or persons responsible for these recorded phone messages, please contact” the district attorney’s office, said the letter sent to Becerra’s campaign treasurer.

On May 18, Becerra’s campaign attorney responded to that request by faxing a letter to the district attorney’s office. The letter blamed the delay on the treasurer filing the letter rather than passing it on to the congressman or his campaign staff.

“Congressman Becerra has informed me that he is aware of a rumor that a commercial phone bank operation hired to work on the campaign may have been involved in producing negative telephone calls against Mr. Villaraigosa,” said the letter from attorney Steele.

But the letter points out that the phone bank was also used by other candidates for office.

“I must stress that Congressman Becerra had no firsthand knowledge regarding these incidents,” Steele wrote, and added that Becerra was offering his personal assistance in the investigation.

By that time, the investigation was in its final stages. Five days later, Cooley announced that Becerra’s campaign was behind the call.

Steele said Thursday that he warned the congressman that if he made an “accusation publicly without having firsthand knowledge,” he could expose himself to liability for libel and slander. He said that by the time they faxed a letter to the district attorney’s office May 18, they had heard from Monserratt’s attorney that the La Colectiva volunteer was going to tell investigators what he knew about the call.

The lawyer also said the district attorney’s office never tried to reach Becerra directly and that Steele initiated contact with Cooley’s office last week and put the congressman in touch with an investigator.

On Tuesday, with the investigation wrapping up, Dave Demerjian, head deputy of the district attorney’s Public Integrity Division, spoke with Becerra by phone.

“I asked him when he became aware of [the calls],” Demerjian said Thursday. The prosecutor said Becerra told him he did not have any knowledge of the controversial calls until after they occurred.

“I said, ‘We have traced them back to your campaign,’ ” Demerjian recalled. “And he said, ‘Oh, really?’ or something like that.

“He appeared to be surprised.”


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