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Carson's Bitter War of Words

February 14, 1988|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

It was a last-minute hit piece: a critical campaign brochure put out by a shell organization, the sort that arrives too late for the victim to respond in kind--a phenomenon that has become familiar in Carson politics.

The pamphlet, used in the 1986 City Council races, hit hard at candidate Michael I. Mitoma. It linked him and the bank where he is president, Pacific Business Bank of Carson, to drug-money laundering. It called him a carpetbagger. It questioned why he was supported by Councilwoman Vera Robles DeWitt, whose name had surfaced in the spreading W. Patrick Moriarty political scandal.

Mitoma counterattacked on the day before the election with a libel suit, denying the allegations and accusing the brochure's sponsors of misrepresenting the facts. Mitoma lost the election, but in a special election a year later he won a seat on the council and he is seeking reelection in April.

Libel suits often are filed in the heat of a campaign and are often quickly forgotten. For a public figure, such as a candidate for office, to win a libel suit, he must prove that statements made against him were false, defamatory and that the person who made them knew they were false or made them with reckless disregard for the truth.

Despite that difficulty, Mitoma and his bank have pressed their suit with vigor, spending "well into the five figures," according to Mitoma. The Carson officials and political figures named in the suit say it is groundless and have sought to have it dismissed.

But on Feb. 4, a Superior Court judge refused to dismiss the case, ruling that defamatory statements in the brochure may have been made with knowledge they were false or with reckless disregard for the truth, and that the case should go forward. No trial date has been set for the suit, which seeks $62.5 million in damages.

Four of the five main defendants in the suit--Sylvia Muise, Tom Mills, Aaron Carter and Leon Cornell--are leaders in one of the city's two main political alliances. The fifth defendant is political consultant Jim Hayes.

Muise and Mills, who won the election in 1986, form a council faction opposed to Mitoma, DeWitt and Mayor Kay Calas, who make up the other grouping and who all are running for reelection in April. Among the six candidates challenging them are Carter and Cornell, who are accused in the suit of helping Muise and Mills disguise their involvement in putting out the brochure in 1986.

As the case has ground on, the defendants--plus City Atty. Glenn Watson, who is not named in the suit--have filled hundreds of pages testifying in depositions that Mitoma provided to The Times.

The defendants' accounts provide a rare look--in sworn testimony--at how seriously politics is taken--and how nasty it can get--in Carson.

The defendants' depositions--sworn statements typically taken in the office of an attorney to determine what a witness would say at a trial--examine the circumstances surrounding the pamphlet in minute detail.

But at heart, they tell a simple story:

On center stage is Muise. According to some defendants, she orchestrated the creation and distribution of the brochure, provided a newspaper article and trial transcript quoted in it, arranged for Carsonites Organized for Good Government, rather than her campaign committee, to mail it, and paid for almost half the cost of its printing and mailing.

Working with her was Hayes, the consultant, who suggested it as a tactic and who drafted the actual wording on the brochure.

The supporting cast included Mills, who bankrolled almost half the expenses, and Carter, who put the name of Carsonites Organized for Good Government on the brochure at the request of Muise and Mills.

Muise and Carter said they did not read the brochure they had ordered until after it had been printed. Mills and Cornell said they first saw it when it arrived in the mail.

Although Muise's allies were forthcoming about her role, she herself frequently pleaded a faulty memory. During her lengthy deposition, she said she did not recall or did not remember 112 times.

For example, she pleaded memory loss when asked when she decided to run for council, how she decided where to concentrate her mailings, what materials she provided for the brochure, whether she recalled writing a $700 check bearing her signature to pay for part of the expenses of the pamphlets, and whether she was surprised when thousands of bundled copies of them arrived at her home a few days before the election.

Amil Roth, the attorney who took the depositions for Mitoma, sarcastically noted Muise's memory lapses during her testimony. "I am glad you can recall something . . .," he said after Muise noted at one point that she had already answered a question he had asked.

Muise attributed her memory lapses about the 1986 campaign to stress caused by her husband's fatal cancer. He died three months after the election.

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