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Captain Money and the Golden Girl: The J. David Affair

October 06, 1985|David Johnston | Johnston, a Times staff writer, has won two national prizes for investigative reporting. and

Captain Money and the Golden Girl: The J. David Affair

by Donald C. Bauder (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $15.95; 244 pp.)

It took J. David Dominelli four years to run his hands through the pockets of more than 1,000 of San Diego and Orange County's richest citizens. Dominelli fled briefly to the Caribbean, then eventually returned to confess that his J. David & Co. was a fraud.

Dominelli claimed to be a brilliant manager who could earn investors annual returns of 40%. In fact, Dominelli paid off early investors with money gleaned from new investors in a simple Ponzi scheme.

The eye-catching cover of this book promises the tale of a $200-million scandal, but the very first page tells the reader the actual losses were only $80 million or 40% of what the cover promises, portending the poverty of material that follows.

How Dominelli, a man who lacked a money-making reputation and could not succeed as a stock broker, got so many Southern Californians to open their checkbooks is a fascinating tale of one man's ability to get others to suspend their critical judgment. Unfortunately, author Donald C. Bauder, the financial editor of the San Diego Union, has investigated his subject about as deeply as the fortuneless investors.

Instead of weaving a rich fabric from the threads of Dominelli's life, showing how they warp and woof through the economic elite of San Diego, Bauder just strings together whatever facts he finds lying about in the open, including unsubstantiated rumors.

Bauder repeatedly lifts material from other sources without credit. On Pages 41 and 42, for example, he digresses from the issue at hand to discuss the 1970s story of Dr. Louis Cella, the Orange County physician who tried to buy state legislators and ended up behind bars. Included is language that appeared, almost word for word, in the Los Angeles Times--and which included an error that The Times later corrected. Bauder repeats the error without correction.

Bauder's laziness as a researcher is further demonstrated in the next paragraph of his book, which states that one of Dominelli's associates "was sometimes called 'the sucker fish that attaches itself to sharks.' " More likely, the associate was called a remora, but even if he couldn't think of the right word, Bauder could have eliminated eight useless words.

In his acknowledgements, which thank no one by name except his editors and family, Bauder claims that "I interviewed hundreds of people, most of whom prefer anonymity." Yet the book cites only a handful of these claimed sources, and most of them are described only with vague phrases that offer little or no guide to the reader to interpret their standing. These purported sources include, again and again, "a San Diegan," "an Oklahoman," and even the all-purpose ethereal voice of "is said."

"Captain Money and the Golden Girl" reads like a clip job, a hastily assembled piece of lightly rewritten material taken from published sources and spiced up with a handful of live interviews. Even so, Bauder fails to take advantage of what is on the record. Robert Lindsey's New York Times Magazine article, for example, painted a far more revealing picture of the scandal and its effect on San Diego's elite than the more than 200 pages of this book.

Most damning, though, is Bauder's failure to explore how the scandal affected relationships among his community's elite. The one area where he attempts this involves San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock's trial, but even here, Bauder serves up rewrites, not insights.

Despite these flaws, parts of this book may be news to readers of Bauder's newspaper because of an extraordinary agreement that Bauder made with The Union. Bauder told The Reader, a San Diego weekly newspaper, that under an agreement with higher-up Union editors "if I found something out on my time, it went into the book. If it was on their time, it went into the paper."

Do editors punch clocks? Why would The Union betray its readers, denying them information for the presumed financial benefit of one of its editors? Indeed, why would Bauder betray readers of his column?

In the end, Bauder gives no satisfying answers about who his subjects are; Dominelli and his mistress, Nancy Hoover, remain a mystery to Bauder. "In retrospect," Bauder writes, "Dominelli's lies were startlingly brazen, his behavior startlingly bizarre and his business acumen seemingly nonexistent." Bauder is unable to make up his mind whether Hoover was the chief manipulator or just another victim.

"Many questions remain," Bauder writes on Page 227. Indeed, chief among them is why the San Diego publishing house of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich lent its imprint to this book.

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