The campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis dissolved into street theater Tuesday, with dueling news conferences before a dozen television cameras outside a state office building in downtown Los Angeles.
Opponents of the recall unveiled a lawsuit seeking to slow or stop an election, arguing that the actions of paid petition circulators violated state law and threatened "the legitimacy and integrity of our electoral system."
A spokeswoman for the recall's biggest financial backer, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, immediately called her own news conference on a nearby sidewalk, where she dismissed the allegations as "absolutely absurd." The spokeswoman, Monica Getz, was later suspended from her job without pay for impersonating a reporter to attend the recall opponents' news conference.
It was the closest California has come thus far to the chaotic legal battling and political posturing that marked the disputed Florida results in the 2000 presidential election. The question this time is not who will assume the presidency but whether Californians will get to vote on Davis' tenure -- and when.
The day's skirmishing began when lawyers for the anti-recall effort announced they would go before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge today to seek a preliminary injunction to block Secretary of State Kevin Shelley from taking any further action on the recall, including certifying the measure for the ballot.
The move came three days after recall proponents filed their own lawsuit against the secretary of state and several county registrars in an effort to speed up the signature count.
The timing of the count is key: If Shelley finds that the recall proponents have filed enough valid signatures by Sept. 4, the recall would be scheduled for the fall in a stand-alone vote, which is considered advantageous to Republicans.
If it is certified later, it would probably be consolidated with the March 4 presidential primary, which is expected to draw a strongly Democratic electorate.
Shelley's office issued a statement expressing confidence in its actions.
"In a heated political environment, it is not surprising that there are going to be legal challenges from both sides about how this process should work," said spokeswoman Terri M. Carbaugh. "We are confident that the courts will affirm our position related to any and all lawsuits."
Beverly Hills attorney Paul Kiesel, speaking for the pro-Davis forces, told a swarm of reporters that signatures had been illegally obtained by out-of-state petition circulators. He alleged that the circulators included two convicted felons who were not registered voters in California. State law requires collectors to be registered voters, although federal courts have muddied that requirement by throwing out similar laws elsewhere.
Armed with videotapes and still pictures, Kiesel claimed that ballot bounty hunters had left petitions unattended on tables outside supermarkets and drug and discount stores in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. He said state law requires signatures to be witnessed by the person circulating the petition.
The pro-Davis forces want a court order blocking county election officials from checking the validity of any signatures on petitions where the circulator did not witness the actual signing, or until they have verified that the signature gatherer was legally registered to vote. Attorney Raymond Boucher said the lawsuit was meant to protect the electoral process.
But Getz, spokeswoman for Issa's campaign for governor, dismissed the suit as "a pathetic joke" and a desperate effort to deny Californians a chance to vote on whether Davis should keep his job. "They know that Gray Davis' time is up," she said.
While lashing out at anti-recall forces, Getz was confronted by a reporter who claimed Getz had signed in as an employee of Los Angeles television station KCBS, to observe the anti-recall press conference.
Getz would not discuss the matter, saying, "I don't know what you're talking about. What's that have to do with anything?"
Later, however, she was suspended from her job "at least until sometime next week," according to Issa's gubernatorial campaign manager, Scott Taylor.
He said that, while Getz claimed she had signed in as "Jane Lopez" from KCBS because she feared the anti-recall forces, he could not condone her behavior.
The court papers filed by Kiesel and associates rest in part on declarations given by two self-described convicted felons, both Arizona residents, who describe how they were brought to Orange County to gather signatures on recall petitions.
In her statement, Kim Theresa Dickson said that Derrick Lee, owner of Lee Petition Co. in Mesa, Ariz., arranged for her and her uncle, Edward Lorenzo Garrett, to travel to Santa Ana on a Greyhound bus to collect signatures.
Dickson said she worked at a K-mart parking lot gathering signatures.
She said she had returned to the motel where she was staying only to find that she had been locked out of her room by Lee, who had left without paying her.
Late in the day, Dave Gilliard, director of Rescue California campaign, called use of the statements "a massive dirty trick," for which he blamed pro-Davis forces.
He said that Dickson and Garrett had showed up for work in Orange County, registered to vote, gone through training and gathered signatures. But they later switched sides and went to work gathering signatures for Davis' own petition drive.
Lee acknowledged having paid for Garrett and Dickson to travel to California but said they had disappeared after collecting about 300 signatures for him.
He said he did not know they had criminal records. "I didn't have a clue," he said.
Times staff writers Paul Pringle and Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.