Focus Is Back on Groping Charges
The dispute was hardly dead, but the charges that Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger abused more than a dozen women over the past three decades had receded from the headlines. Attention was pivoting to the upcoming inauguration. Schwarzenegger was making news by filling out his Cabinet and appointing senior staff. No new accusations had surfaced since his election victory on Oct. 7.
Yet in the span of an afternoon on Thursday, the focus lurched from Schwarzenegger’s methodical efforts to build a government to the uncomfortable question that had dominated the final days of the recall campaign: his treatment of women.
At a news conference about an unrelated lawsuit, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer took a question about the groping allegations. He largely repeated a point he had made during the campaign: that the accusations were troubling and should be investigated. He said he had told Schwarzenegger as much during a private meeting the day before. It might have ended there.
But Schwarzenegger’s transition team quickly arranged a conference call with reporters, where a spokesman aggressively rebuked Lockyer.
During the call, Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman also disclosed that the governor-elect would hire a private investigator to examine the allegations.
The thinking behind both statements was “surprising,” Walt Stone, chairman of the political science department at UC Davis, said Friday. “It surprised me that they reacted at all.”
Stone said, “The flow of news was away from this, and the emphasis was on the establishment of the new administration. What this does is bring it back.”
GOP political strategist Dan Schnur said he saw “two silver linings” in Schwarzenegger’s reaction to Lockyer.
“It sends a strong message to everyone in the Capitol about how seriously the new governor takes the confidentiality of private conversations. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Lockyer are both smart enough politicians to put this behind them in pretty short order. But the first time a legislator thinks about going public with the details of a private conversation, they’ll remember how hard a slap Lockyer took.”
Some Democrats were more critical of the governor-elect. “If we have the Schwarzenegger team investigate the allegations, we might as well have Ken Lay investigate Enron’s behavior,” said lawyer and state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana). “There’s no credibility to that.”
He added, “I can’t for the life of me figure out any upside” to the Schwarzenegger response.
In revealing what the two men had discussed, Lockyer violated attorney-client privilege, Stutzman said during the conference call. Yet legal experts said Schwarzenegger had no right to confidentiality. Lockyer is the independently elected attorney general for the entire state, not Schwarzenegger’s private attorney, they said. And in any case, Schwarzenegger is not yet the governor. Pressing a claim that scholars contend is legally dubious could resurrect a concern raised during the campaign: that as a former actor and bodybuilder who has never held elective office, Schwarzenegger is not schooled in the workings of state government.
“California politics is turning into a French bedroom comedy,” said Jan Handzlik, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles who now specializes in white-collar criminal defense.
“Mistakes like that -- not knowing the relationship between the governor and the attorney general -- are not a good thing for a governor that’s trying to convince the people that he’s competent and knowledgeable,” said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.
In an interview Friday, Stutzman stood by the view that Lockyer had violated the legal code that protects conversations between attorney and client. Lockyer had “presented himself” to Schwarzenegger as the governor-elect’s lawyer, and that is how Schwarzenegger had seen him, Stutzman said.
Schwarzenegger’s new legal advisor, Peter Siggins -- himself a former deputy to Lockyer -- had reached the same “clear opinion,” Stutzman said. Schwarzenegger’s office declined to make Siggins available for comment on Friday.
Asked why the governor-elect had responded to Lockyer’s statements, Stutzman said there had been a need to protest disclosure of a “privileged conversation.”
“The attorney general raised the issue,” he said.
Harvey Englander, a Los Angeles political consultant, said: “Saying that they’re going to hire a private investigator for some unknown purpose and they may or may not release the results -- it smacks of, are they investigating the lives of the women who made the accusations? For a governor that has an opportunity to look forward, it is a strange look backward that they are taking.”
He added: “They’ve brought up an issue that proved in the election not to have any staying power, and they’ve given it its own staying power. If anything, they’ve given credibility to an issue that was no longer on people’s minds.”
Any finding that clears Schwarzenegger is certain to face skepticism. Schwarzenegger had hoped to mute such worries by turning over the results to Lockyer. But because of the rift that has opened, the governor-elect may not circulate the report at all, according to his transition team.
Gloria Allred, the prominent Democratic attorney who represents Rhonda Miller, a stuntwoman who alleged that Schwarzenegger touched her breasts on the set of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” dismissed the idea that Schwarzenegger could launch a legitimate investigation of himself.
“It’s preposterous to think ... hiring his own private investigator is an independent review. He would be accountable only to him,” Allred said.
Allred said she was concerned that his hiring of a private investigator might “have a chilling effect on some women coming forward.”
Then there is the question of whether the alleged victims would even cooperate with private investigators dispatched by Schwarzenegger. One said she would not.
E. Laine Stockton, who had accused Schwarzenegger of groping her in a 1975 incident, said she would refuse to cooperate with any investigation run by people working for Schwarzenegger. “It would be prejudicial and biased, and I’m not going to put myself in that position,” Stockton said. But if an investigator were “appointed by the state attorney general independently, I would consider granting a question-and-answer period.”
Stockton told The Times that she was in a gym in 1975 when Schwarzenegger walked up behind her, reached under her T-shirt, and touched her left breast. “I don’t trust Arnold,” she added. “He hasn’t given me any reason to trust him.”
Schwarzenegger’s election victory, Stutzman said, confirms that California voters are comfortable with his behavior. When the story broke, Schwarzenegger refused to talk about specifics, but he acknowledged having behaved badly at times and issued a general apology to anyone who had been offended.
The private eye is being hired, not so much to provide reassurance, Stutzman said, as to fulfill a commitment Schwarzenegger made during the campaign.
“”He gave his word that he would take a look and review the issues,” Stutzman.
Times staff writers Carla Hall, Henry Weinstein and Joe Mathews contributed to this report.
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