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Simon Offers Snafu ‘Regret’

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. expressed regret Thursday for accusing Gov. Gray Davis of illegally accepting a political donation, calling the matter a “sorry episode” that has distracted voters from the important issues of the race.

“I find it necessary to express to everyone my sincere regret for the way this matter was handled,” the GOP candidate said during a speech to Town Hall Los Angeles at a downtown hotel.

“Now, many of you may have seen my latest commercial, where I say I’m not perfect, and that’s indeed true,” he added. “Now we know, of course, my campaign is not perfect.”

Simon’s remarks were his first public acknowledgment that he erred this week when he claimed that a photo showed Davis taking a $10,000 check from a police organization in his state office when he was lieutenant governor. Accepting campaign donations in state offices is a misdemeanor.

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However, the photograph of Davis and the group’s former executive director, Alfred Angele, was actually taken at a private home in Santa Monica.

The candidate said he offered his regrets in the same spirit in which he demanded an apology from Davis for attacking Simon’s record during Monday’s gubernatorial debate. But Simon stopped short of using the word “apology.” And he maintained that he had never said the photograph was taken in the lieutenant governor’s office--even though on Tuesday he had called the picture “proof” that the governor violated the law.

“I never said that picture was what other people said it was,” Simon told reporters after his speech. When pressed on the matter, he added: “To the extent to which I should have said ‘purported,’ I accept that.”

Simon said he was eager to move on to other matters, but the Davis campaign said the issue was not settled.

“Where’s the apology?” asked Davis campaign strategist Garry South. “This man, a so-called former prosecutor, stood in public before the state press corps and called the governor a criminal and said he had evidence to prove it. He owes the governor an apology--not an apology to the people, but to the person he defamed.”

The other man in the picture, Angele, held a news conference Wednesday at the lavish house where the picture was taken in January 1998. Surrounded by television cameras in the foyer, the spot where the photo was shot, Angele demanded letters of apology from both Simon and the police organization for charging that he had given Davis the check in the state capitol.

“I don’t understand why somebody didn’t pick up the phone and at least call me and say, ‘Where was this picture taken?’ ” Angele said. Angele said he was particularly incensed by allegations that he broke the law, because he is a Davis appointee to the Board of Prison Terms, where he holds sway over the sentences of prisoners.

Angele’s lawyer, Stephen Warren Solomon, told reporters the house--then the home of developer Bruce Karatz--was “392 miles from the lieutenant governor’s office.”

“This is a defamatory act, accusing him of a crime,” Solomon said. “It was done with reckless disregard of the truth, and we are reviewing now a potential defamation suit against all potential parties in this matter.”

He said Angele would wait a few weeks for letters of apology before deciding whether to sue. “Unlike Mr. Simon, we’re not going to jump and run,” Solomon said.

The episode, occurring with just weeks to go before the Nov. 5 election, has roiled Simon’s already struggling campaign and astonished many political strategists, who were dumbfounded at what they termed a severe misstep.

On Wednesday, Simon campaign strategist Ed Rollins acknowledged that the incident had caused the businessman’s candidacy serious damage. “Some people in our campaign thought this was a silver bullet,” he told reporters. “I think it was a bullet. I think we put it in the gun wrong. We shot ourselves in the head.”

Rollins actually went further than Simon on Thursday, offering his apology to the candidate and the governor.

“I apologize for being a part of something that accused him of lawbreaking with no evidence,” Rollins said. He added that the campaign would continue to embrace the endorsement of the group that supplied the picture: the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs.

During his Los Angeles speech, Simon said he had believed COPS when its leadership told his campaign it had evidence of illegal behavior by the governor. He said he believed it in part because reporting the instance would also implicate the group, and he noted that Davis’s fund-raising practices have been questioned in the past.

Simon spokesman Mark Miner, meantime, said any legal action by Angele would be “nothing more than a frivolous lawsuit.”

“The information was provided by COPS in a good-faith effort and turned out to be inaccurate,” Miner said. “We admitted our mistake, and now we’re moving on.”

Rollins, however, said the campaign is considering writing a letter of apology to Angele.

The incident, which has upset Republicans and demoralized Simon’s campaign staff, was initially seen as a way for the campaign to get on the offensive. Low on money, Rollins said, the campaign had hoped that the release of the photo would give Simon’s candidacy a much-needed bump.

“We’ve been running on fumes,” Rollins said. “When you’re sitting there with 4 or 5 million dollars ... and he’s got 21 [million] left and he’s been hitting us with $30 million, we’ve got to do things like this to stay in the game. We’re in guerrilla warfare.”

Rollins said campaign officials didn’t have an opportunity to verify the photo before the police organization released it Tuesday, but went forward with the charge because they were repeatedly assured by members of the group that it was authentic.

“We’re not stupid,” Rollins said, adding that the campaign asked about the veracity of the picture scores of times. “In hindsight, we look stupid.”

Simon was not aware that the police organization was going to release the photograph until Saturday, when his advisors told him to ask Davis during Monday’s debate if he had ever taken political money in a state office. Rollins said the candidate did not ask them if they had vetted the picture.

“I think we were so assured it was going to happen the way we laid it out to be,” he said, adding: “We made some assumptions that obviously we shouldn’t have.”

After enduring four days of often-hostile questioning about the photo, Simon said he was eager to move on to other matters. He vowed to spend the rest of the election talking about such issues as the economy, education and the state’s infrastructure.

“In the last 26 days, I want to do my level best to raise the dialogue in the campaign,” he said.


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