Money talks when topic is ballot endorsements

Times Staff Writer

They portray themselves as truth-tellers, honest brokers and experts on such issues as taxation, racial equality, public safety and healthcare.

But come election season, they are the political equivalent of spokesmodels, endorsing causes and candidates and often collecting big paychecks, some topping $100,000. With the cost of statewide campaigns in this election zooming toward $450 million, these expert endorsers are raking it in.

The tobacco industry, opposing the Proposition 86 cigarette tax, paid Sacramento consultant Alice Huffman $160,000. Huffman heads the California NAACP -- and the venerable civil rights organization is opposing the $2.60-per-pack tax on the Nov. 7 ballot.

In some instances, consultants play the part of "agent." The oil industry, fighting the Proposition 87 oil tax, has paid $35,000 to Aaron Read. Read heads one of Sacramento's top lobbying firms, representing police and firefighters unions. Police officers and firefighters are featured prominently in the No-on-87 campaign opposing the $4-billion oil tax.

The endorsements include public appearances, news conferences, television commercials and mass mailings. Campaigns pay for the testimonials because they work.

"In the marketplace, consumers can get bamboozled in every direction," said Elisa Odabashian, West Coast director of Consumers Union, a nonpartisan nonprofit corporation. "Unfortunately, the initiative process is a marketplace. It has become no different than selling a drug or a car. The idea is the product, and somebody is paying for it."

The price that campaigns are willing to pay became apparent to Los Angeles actor Rico Simonini. Like most actors, he has a side job, but not as a waiter. He is Dr. Americo Simonini, a Beverly Hills cardiologist with privileges at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

When a casting call went out for a doctor-actor to read a commercial, Simonini auditioned and the producers liked what they saw. But then Simonini realized what he'd be doing: siding with the tobacco industry.

Like many healthcare experts, Simonini believes the tobacco tax, being pushed mainly by hospitals, would dissuade some people -- particularly children -- from smoking.

"I'm a cardiologist. I can't do this," Simonini said.

When he politely declined the work, he said he was told the $5,000 fee could double if the initiative's proponents could use his name and identify him as a physician. If the ad ran for the duration of the campaign, the pay would multiply accordingly.

Simonini still has student loans to repay. But it wasn't worth it.

"It would have been a feather for them to have a doctor come on board," Simonini said, but he felt there was no choice. "There are people working very cleverly to achieve their ends, to undermine what is good for us. Why? ... So much is at stake."

Frank Schubert, who is overseeing part of the No-on-86 campaign, said that although he has no idea how much money Simonini was offered, the campaign would have paid the doctor only a modest sum, for the time taken away from his patients.

Schubert added: "He would have had to have agreed with the script. We never got to that point."

The tobacco industry did find a physician: Dr. Patricia Austin, a Contra Costa County ophthalmologist who has butted heads with hospitals. She appeared gratis, taping the spot on a Saturday.

"If I'm willing to take the position, I need to stand up," Austin said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has paid $16,043 to the Rev. Amos Brown, a prominent San Francisco preacher, Democrat and former San Francisco supervisor. Brown, who previously had been critical of Schwarzenegger, appears on radio commercials promoting the Republican incumbent's reelection.

"Amos Brown is endorsing this governor based on the governor's stand on the issues," campaign advisor Margaret Fortune said, citing Schwarzenegger's recent decision to sign a bill urging that the state divest holdings in Sudan.

Brown said he is "sick and tired" of Democrats taking African American voters for granted.

"I value my vote and vote my values," Brown said. Noting that he is a cleric, educator and a San Francisco housing commissioner, he added: "I do have some skills, and I do have a brain. If people want to use those skills, I don't see why there is brouhaha over it."

This year, like most years, the biggest checks are being written by initiative campaigns.

Police and firefighters have received more than $220,000 for being featured prominently in both the No-on-86 and No-on-87 campaigns. One reason may be that lobbyist Read represents many public safety unions.

One of his clients is the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, a 58,000-member organization that is seen in the state Capitol as expert on police and public safety issues. It lobbies in Sacramento, often swaying lawmakers when it takes stands on bills -- as it did on at least 49 bills this year.

The police group also sends mass mailings, called "slate cards," in which it announces its positions. This year, it reserved the most prominent spots on its slate card for its opposition to Propositions 86 and 87.

The group has received $100,000 from the No-on-86 campaign, and $120,000 from the No-on-87 campaign. The organization referred calls to its lobbyist, Aaron Read & Associates.

Randy Perry, a partner in the Read firm, said the police and firefighters are convinced that the taxes would take money from public safety. Adding that the police group makes no money from the slate card mailings, Perry said they get involved in campaigns because "they think they have an impact on voters."

Steve Smith, a Democratic consultant who is helping to oversee the Yes-on-87 effort funded by environmentalists and venture capitalists, said endorsements usually help campaigns. Firefighters, he said, "are more popular than teachers."

But "having a firefighter talking about foreign oil doesn't track," Smith said, and the same applies to police.

Besides, he said, Proposition 87 has been endorsed by former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, both highly popular in California. Neither was paid, although the Yes-on-87 campaign reimbursed a private aviation company $10,833 to fly Clinton to California, said campaign spokesman Yusef Robb.

Also receiving payments were the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and its executives, leading backers of Proposition 89, an initiative to raise corporate taxes and create public campaign financing.

Funded largely by the California Nurses Assn., the Yes-on-89 campaign has paid them $110,000. The foundation's executives make public appearances and write commentary, including in the Los Angeles Times opinion pages, in favor of the measure.

In an interview, foundation President Jamie Court said he and the group's other officials are simply acting on their beliefs. He noted that he and his organization helped foster the initiative and have long advocated an overhaul of campaign financing.

The payment amounts to reimbursement for the foundation's costs, Court said: "No one in our organization makes more than their salary. It is a complete wash."

Often, the testimonials create odd alliances. For example, liberal groups such as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and some unions, particularly public safety labor groups, are siding this year with the traditionally more conservative California Republican Party and business organizations in opposing the tobacco and oil taxes.

The NAACP's Huffman was an aide to former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and long has been active in the Democratic Party. Huffman attracted attention last year when The Times disclosed that she received payments from pharmaceutical companies and sided with them against a labor-backed initiative aimed at reducing drug costs.

Huffman and the national headquarters of the NAACP did not return phone calls. But the No-on-86 campaign website quotes the California State Conference of the NAACP as calling the tax "patently unfair" because it would be "especially burdensome on low-income smokers."

Kris Deutschman, spokeswoman for the Yes-on-86 campaign, said voters should "be wary of what money is driving endorsements. They do have the potential to create confusion.... That is what the tobacco companies want."

dan.morain@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Paid political endorsements

Campaigns often make payments to individuals and organizations that

endorse their positions. These are some payments reported to the state

recently:

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Recipient: SourceAmount

Donna Arduin (Gov. Schwarzenegger's first finance director)

Source:No on Proposition 86

Amount: $35,000*

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Recipient: William Hamm(former California legislative analyst)

Source: No on Proposition 87

Amount: $94,000**

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Recipient: Alice Huffman (California NAACP, AC Public Affairs)

Source: No on Proposition 86

Philip Morris, USA

Amount: $160,000

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Recipient: Peace Officers Research Assn. of California

Source: No on Proposition 86

Amount: $100,000

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Recipient: Peace Officers Research Assn. of California

Source: No on Propositon 87

Amount: $120,000

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Recipient: Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights

Source: Yes on Proposition 89

Amount: $109,997

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Recipient: Orange County Firefighters Voter Guide

Source: No on Proposition 87

Amount: $18,600

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* Payment made to Arduin's firm, Arduin, Laffer & Moore, which

produced a study of the tobacco tax.

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** Payment made to Hamm's firm, LECG, LLC. Hamm said he has not taken

a position, but No-87 is using his remarks and a study he did on the

oil tax.

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Source: California secretary of state

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